Communion and Communality in Major League and ‘Non League’ Football

14 Sep

David....

…. and Goliath

Following the recent ‘Non-League Day[1]’; a national campaign encouraging football fans accustomed to Premier League (and Championship) life to visit their local non-League team, I decided to go and watch my home-town team Consett AFC. It had been a good five years since my last Consett AFC match. To call me even a moderately interested supporter of the team’s fortunes would be generous. I don’t support them at all!

I don’t think that it is because I have been seduced by the “glitz and glamour of life at the top table” as the BBC news coverage of the scheme had it – god knows there has been scant glitz or glamour at NUFC in their recent history. The reason is that, until going to see Consett, I had opposed the notion of having a ‘second team’. I felt almost like it would be cheating on NUFC, that they demanded my undivided attention – “thou shalt have no other football teams above me”. This, I suppose, is a mitigating factor in my disinterest in the national team.

 

However, on reflecting on my experience at the Consett game, I was forced to question this assertion. For the world of so called ‘non-league’ football (a disparaging, top-down analysis of the game indeed) is quite separate from its allegedly ‘glitzy’ counterpart, the major leagues. They are, in many respects, entirely different pastimes; different rituals certainly, governed by quite distinct sets of socio-cultural codes. 

By labelling the non-league and major league games as different, I am not focussing on the actual football played – the skill, game quality or subsequent ‘passion’ from the crowd – nor the seriousness with which players invested in proceedings. The game itself, a closely fought 1-0 victory for Consett over second place Bedlington Terriers, was as good as some of the football played in the major leagues (Match of the Day micro-highlights are, I fear, overly kind to teams such as Blackburn and Blackpool!) 

The difference comes from the experience and usage of the event of the football match by the participants (i.e. the crowd). The ‘atmosphere’ of the game was so entirely different from a Premier league game that one must consider these two cultural practices as exclusive and distinct, rather than one event (non-league games) being a smaller (or lower copy) version of the other (major league games). I don’t think that this is exclusively due to sheer numbers of participants – although obviously that is a factor. I believe that non-league and major league football occupy quite different cultural spaces and satisfy distinctly different needs for those that engage with them. 

The following points are made from a preliminary, speculative standpoint and as such would require much more observation and research to clarify and refine. I would like to moot some of the differences I noticed and advance the notion that these two cultural practices are separate. 

Firstly, and perhaps most noticeable, was the absence of any clearly defined ‘other’ – a feature that is of paramount importance within the context of major league games. There was no physical segregation of fans, no grouping together of ‘home’ and ‘away’ fans, either enforced or self-selected. To illustrate this point, sitting in the centre of the stand at the Consett game was a rather large gentleman in replica Bedlington Terriers shirt. Save for his equally rotund wife (also resplendent in replica Bedlington shirt), he made no effort to sit with or communicate with any other Bedlington Terriers fans. Indeed his only conversation (that I witnessed) was with a Consett AFC fan, with whom he had a long and hearty conversation at both half-time and full-time. 

I don’t think that this lack of segregation was solely down to lack of numbers (I saw only a handful of Bedlington fans to the hundred or so Consett fans; perhaps the ration of home: away fans was about the same as the average major league game?) nor even down to the logistical fact that Consett AFC only have one stand, as one could quite easily imagine that the away fans, either through direct of implicit pressure from home fans, or through a (subconscious) desire to express their ‘unity’, would congregate in one particular area of the stand. On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to put this down to the nostalgic, misty-eyed noti0on of non-league clubs being ‘more welcoming’ by virtue of the fact that they are usually housed in (or representatives of) smaller communities, as the BBC article constantly hinted at. A brief walk around the town of Consett would dispel the myth of ‘the town as welcoming’! 

My initial thought as to the reason for the lack of a clearly defined, oppositional ‘other’, is perhaps that the supporters of non-league clubs consider themselves to be part of the same sub-cultural group. Thus, supporters of different clubs are part of the same ‘self’. In expressing this opinion, again I am wary of romanticising the non-league and robbing it of its obvious competitive edge. I am not suggesting there is not a rivalry at play in these non-league games, rather that the fans see themselves as engaging in a unified subculture, rather than opposing factions. They are parts of the same community coming together rather than two opposing communities clashing. 

In addressing the idea that non-league and major-league represent two distinct socio-cultural rituals, I wish to advance an analogy which may not fit entirely, but may help highlight some of the differences between them. 

If one takes non-league football to be a ‘subcultural’ activity, then I would suggest that many elements of supporting a major league team are more akin to a religious affiliation than a subcultural one. In fairly glib terms, where subcultures tend to be localised to geographically specific locations (although this notion has been problematised by the mushrooming of (exclusively) on-line or ‘virtual’ subcultures, where websites become, or negate the need for, ‘spaces’ for subcultures), major clubs have fans all over the country, indeed the globe (although there is another argument surrounding ‘true’ fans of a major league club – is geographical proximity to the stadium/ some claim to geographical connection a prerequisite for ‘authentic’ fandom in major league football?). Where subcultures tend to be defined against a loose conglomeration of ‘others’ – other genres of music, political beliefs etc – religions tend to have quite definite ‘others’, often ‘others’ who share many traits, who are vilified. Where subcultures tend to foster a feeling of community, individuals coming together of their own volition with a specific commonly held interest and not necessarily within a centralised location, or with any centralised ‘authority’ organising events, religions tend to promote, in a very centralised manner, a communion. Participants must go to a singular location where unity (singularity) is vociferously asserted. 

I am not wishing to paint either of these practises in a negative light; not to suggest that certain examples of both subcultures and religions that do not fit these broad assertions could not be found. I only wish to suggest that subcultures and religions, whist similar in many senses, occupy distinctly separate cultural spaces, and I believe that the same is true of major league and non league football fandom. 

I was particularly struck by the notion that whilst non league football tends to promote the cultural activity of ‘communality’, major league football is more akin to a ‘communion’. The former is a loose feeling of belonging in a group, the latter an orchestrated act of participation (is ‘worship’ pushing the allegory too far?) 

To community of non league football is one of individuals who engage with each other as individuals. I would tentatively suggests (again wary of romanticism) that more (and more varied, individualised) roles are allowed into the event of a non league game. The raffle ticket seller, the man by the turnstile selling Consett badges, the Tannoy announcer (a man standing in the crowd with a microphone), the away fans mingling with home fans, the man selling pies in the corner of the ground, the home team physio (who was engaged in conversation with fans near the touchline for the duration of the game) all felt distinct parts of the ‘ritual’ of the game. In the major league game, the role of participant is confined almost exclusively to being part of the crowd, who are treated almost as a singular entity (The Toon Army, The Kop etc). All the above mentioned roles are present at a major league game, but all re peripheral, not a part of the ritual (with the notable exception of the Tannoy announcer). 

Barry Shank’s work on musical subcultures in Austin, Texas[2] notes that not all members of a subculture will (or need to) know one another. However, it is likely that one could (though why one would is another matter) draw a series of interlacing Venn diagrams connecting members of a subculture through smaller friendship groups, conversations, specific interests within (and outside) the parameters of the subculture. Within the major league context, such associations are impossible, and thus social interactions, aside from those sitting immediately next to you, are minimal. As a personal vignette, my brother has sat next to the same NUFC season ticket holder for some twelve years. They have never spoken. He does not know this fellow supporters name, though they have embraced once as a result of an exceptionally crucial goal! 

In this atmosphere, the notion of ‘community’ is even more pointedly accentuated. Following some of Dick Hebdige’s conclusions, one might conclude that the insistence on wearing replica shirts[3], the commonly known chants etc might be indicative of a subculture. However, even these features seem to have more in common with the liturgical practices of religion than the often ad hoc assemblages of subcultures. The ‘uniform’, the adoption of singularising group names, the mass singing feel orchestrated. Perhaps this is because they are not by-products of the distillation of similar, collective tastes (as the fashion signifiers of a subculture may be), but essential in promoting the unity of the community. It is these signifiers that construct the unity; that forge the sense of togetherness across such vast numbers. 

So, at Consett, there was much less visible demonstration of allegiance – the odd scarf or pin-badge – but little else. There was also very little collective noise from the crowd – the odd, individual shout or encouragement (or mild castigation), a round of applause at the start, half-time, Consett goal and the end of the match – but little else. There was certainly none of the chanting or singing so prevalent at major league games. 

The football chant (or ‘arsenal’ of football chants) is, in the major league world, effectively part of a separate competition that exists in parallel to the actual game of football. Sets of fans are competing against each other to demonstrate their superior fidelity and passion for their community/ team/ religion through chanting. This goes some way to explaining the plethora of chants aimed at denigrating opposition teams (generic examples include “you’re shit, and you know you are”, [or opposition stadium] “I’ve got a shed as big as this” and the delightfully acerbic “your support is fucking shit!”), as well as the chants asserting the fidelity of the group (“we are the loyalist football supporters the world has ever had!”) 

The lack of this ubiquitous major league phenomenon at non league games can be explained both by the fact that there is no apparent ‘other’ with which to compete, assuming that both the home and away fans consider themselves part of the same subcultural community, which may be contentious. Similarly, because ‘admission’ into the community at non league level comes through individual familiarity and interaction with fellow members at matches, then there is less need to assert (or claim, or prove) such fidelity and unity among the community. 

The above suggestions are, at this stage, little more than that, and obviously more research into both phenomena is needed. But at this stage, I would like to reassert my hypothesis that in terms of crowd, community and cultural ritualised space occupied, non league and major league football occupy quite different spaces. Practical applications of this theory mean that, on the down side, the ‘non league day’ campaign to encourage fans to substitute major for non league football, despite reported rises in non league ticket sales (during the campaign), will probably not result in many conversions or long-term increases in non league crowds. On the up side, I don’t feel guilty about claiming a ‘second team’ for myself, although I now have a quandary over picking Tow Law Town or Consett AFC as my second team.     


[1] http://www.nonleagueday.co.uk/ 

[2] “Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas” (1994) 

[3] I have noticed the increase in ‘vintage’ shirts as NUFC games. Is this a trend that is mirrored in other major league teams, or is it just my imagination? In a piece on West Brom. on Match of the Day 2 the other day, it seemed that a lot of Baggies fans were wearing vintage shirts too.

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7 Responses to “Communion and Communality in Major League and ‘Non League’ Football”

  1. asto1 14/09/2010 at 11:24 #

    As an attempt to instigate some debate on this subject, I would welcome (indeed greatly appreciate) the thoughts and opinions of both major league and non league supporters on some of the points raised above, or any of their own observations, opinions or stories.
    As a wider concern, and in a climate where many of the more negative factions associated with ‘the beautiful game’ claim clubs see ‘the fan’ (or fans) as little more than a cash cow, it would be interesting to get some opinions on the subject. To kick start, I ask the following questions:
    • What is the role of the fan as an individual in the contemporary game, major and non league?
    • What role has the fan within the conglomeration of ‘the crowd’?
    • What experience do you have of being ‘in the crowd’? Is it to be part of a community?
    • Particularly for active fans of both a major league and non league club: it there a dichotomy between these two cultural events, or are they part of the same world?
    • Does non league football occupy a subcultural, individualised space that once belonged to major league teams? Have major league teams become little more than businesses with scant connection to, or regard for, the community they purport to represent, or is such a discourse too romantic in relation to non league and too cynical towards major league?

  2. pcncr 14/09/2010 at 12:24 #

    Can’t add much on a theoretical level, but a brief thought about my experience as a non-league fan. Until recently, my team was in the Blue Square Premier division, just one away from the league proper.

    I mostly recognise your description of non-league support, the lack of a consistent ‘other,’ a certain fellowship between fans, although I’d say that with attendances of 1000/1500/2000 etc. it definitely starts to hybridise. There are enough fans for a ‘hardcore’ section to form in one of the stands, and when a large team or near neighbour is in town (100+ fans) there is a bona fide away end.

    The game this reminds me of is when Luton town visited last season. Luton were a Championship side just a few years ago and it just struck me how different the home game against them was. For the first time the atmosphere outside the ground was like a league game, with supporters trying to intimidate one another, and after the game (Luton had been denied a win late-on) there was animosity. Inside the ground, Luton had considerable away support and were truly confined in their end. There were minor scuffles on the border between home and away support. And there was a contest between the two supports over the volume of their chanting (completely novel as it’s usually ~800 vs ~80).

    I don’t know if this is interesting or useful, but I would certainly say that a “major club” mentality was very noticeable and distinct that afternoon.

    • asto1 14/09/2010 at 12:58 #

      Cheers, very interesting to hear of the grey area existing between non league and major league – it would be interesting to get an account from one of the so-called ‘hardcore’ fans you talk of – how do they percieve their ‘club/community’ (in relation to the premier league etc)

      It is also interesting to note that you equate the competition between sets of fans with animosity. I really don’t think I have experienced any negative connotations to this ever-changing contest for ‘most-passionate-set-of-fans’ at NUFC games, despite the apparent aggression in many of the chants. I’m sure animosity does exist in this fan interaction, and it would be interesting to explore what fans think is ‘at stake’ in these encounters.

      anyway, thanks for the comment

  3. Champ 14/09/2010 at 22:41 #

    Another thoroughly interesting piece.

    I totally agree with the suggestion of NL and ML football occupying little, if any, of the same
    cultural space. I too, for reasons of complete national-team-ambivalence, attended
    a NL game. I can’t believe I’ve never seen a
    Consett AFC game having lived within five minutes of Belle Vue for almost two decades, though now it is Birtley Town I find as my ‘local’ team.

    A twenty minute 5mile
    bus

  4. Champ 14/09/2010 at 22:48 #

    IPHONE MAN!!!

    I’ll have to do this reply tomorrow unfortunately, tried twice already and if phone ruins it again it’s going out the window…

  5. asto2 15/09/2010 at 01:57 #

    I enjoyed reading this, though would make comment on one thing that would hopefully go someway to include pcncr’s experience.
    I believe something of the dynamic or atmosphere directly correlates with numbers of fans present. To take it to extremes, it is surely harder (though I admit from personal experience, not impossible) to stare a man in the face and call him ‘a cunt’, than it is to be in a 40,000 strong chorus, and call a traveling 1,400 ‘a bunch of cunts’. Not only that but there is more fun to be had in the latter.
    I generally, and genuinely believe that most people are not this unkind, and that the large crowd mentality goes a long way to creating the hostility experienced at major league football events. If scaled up to relevant size, I predict the Consett vs Bedlington game would be just as a rancorous experience as any Premier League game.
    Two examples would hopefully support this.
    Firstly, and let us use the most magnified example of this: The Tyne/Wear derby.
    On that day, I wake up, and everything vaguely connected with Mackemdom, I despise. The language produced that day is plucked from a dark silo that has been set aside for solely that day. It is the kind of hatred that has led a crowd of everyday decent people, to ‘boo’ from the pitch, with some venom, two seven year old girls who were picked as the SAFC mascots for the encounter. Every player or even person who has ever been connected with that club, that city, or that green line on the Metro railway system, becomes an irredeemable hate figure. Yet, the next day, you see Andy, dressed in a suit, with his little podgy face, and all mackem hatred, which yesterday was some of the truest emotion ever felt, evaporates quite happily. I believe that as the capacity of the crowd is scaled up, so is irrational emotion.
    Which leads me to example two. During the penultimate game of Newcastle’s disastrous 2008/09 season, at 1-0 down to Fulham at home, and eighty minutes in, a clumsy, but wholly innocent ball boy, aged ten, possibly younger hadn’t noticed the ball bounce over the hoardings and fall within his territory. When finally prompted to retrieve and return, he picked up the ball and pathetically tossed it a good four meters short of a bellowing and frantic Habib Beye. I, quite perturbed by the event, raised myself from my seat, arm and equally index finger out-stretched, pointing directly at the boy, and in a move of pure frustration, shouted “OH YOU’RE FUCKING SHIT!”
    Now I know I am not always the calmest of souls, especially when football is the subject, but I would like to think, that it was the force of this “big crowd syndrome” that forced me to act like, what some people would describe as “a massive twat”. It is a syndrome which leads to the referee becoming a criminal who you shower with profanity, yet if you were to talk with him face to face after the game you may have points to discuss, but you certainly wouldn’t be gesticulating in his face, repeating that he was a wanker, was a wanker, was a wanker, was a wanker, was a wanker. I believe this syndrome can blur what is humanly acceptable, and lead normally rational people to do and say ridiculous things. To create animosity where it needn’t exist. To create rivals from compatriots… But I wouldn’t change it for all the lifted lead in Sunderland.
    You’re right that the two are different beasts, but I believe the difference lies in the scale of the thing.

    P.S. Me and the guy I have sat next to at the game all my life (who’s name I don’t know), have enjoyed more than the solitary, wordless embrace described. I bumped into him at 2am in a pub in the city centre. He saw me and lurched precariously across to me. I said, rather stuck for things to say “Alright mate? Did you renew your season ticket?”. To which he replied only with a far from loving embrace and a sopping, open mouthed kiss on my cheek, and lurched once more, jaw protruding, dangerously off into the night.

  6. scott 16/09/2010 at 13:55 #

    The issue I want to discuss is chants as an indicator of status. However, I am reluctant to draw the conclusion that the status in question is that of the teams; but rather of the match context.

    As long as chants are confined to football – and don’t extend to include broader social issues – I think football chants get more progressively more acerbic the higher the stakes of a given match context. A derby between local rivals will generate its share of bile; a derby between local rivals in a cup final would generate considerably more.

    That would be my working hypothesis. It fits in with the majority of my experiences, though there are exceptions. I remember a mid-table game in the bottom tier away to Doncaster (in the days when both sides’ traditional rivals were higher up the table) when, upon leaving the ground, our coach was ambushed by Doncaster supporters throwing bricks and waving nailed-up planks of wood. Perhaps it was precisely because neither side had anything to play for that it took on such an antagonistic character. In other words, if one could imagine some sort of formula for determining the stakes of a given match and calculate probabilities of violence and aggro from there, the prestige of the competition would only be one factor among many.

    As for the lack of this sort of behaviour in non-league competition, I think your initial thought – that there was a lack of any clearly delineated oppositional Other – is worth sticking with. Professional league experiences (and I believe the high end of the Conference National provides similar, if not identical experiences) come with a set of pre-requisites and restrictions – such as where to go, what to wear, even what to say and how to behave. These restrictions apply before one is even in the ground – how to travel, where to park/disembark, who to travel with; which part of a broadcast to pay attention to, which media source to use for information (these technological choices are important). I’d argue that the more intense these conditions of restriction, the more clearly defined is the sense of otherness that emanates from the other end. For example, outside of a derby game, it is standard to expect (in a league match) that the away end will be more boisterous, louder, angrier, more offensive – ostensibly setting down markers for the home end to prove itself, but really, I would argue, a response to the greater intensity of restrictions imposed upon the away end’s matchday experience.

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