Following the recent ‘Non-League Day’; 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!
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 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, 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.
 “Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas” (1994)
 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.
As underlined by this latest frisson over Andy “working man” Carroll, the feud between Louise Taylor and NUFC shows no signs of abating. I’m not sure how it started – perhaps those in the know can fill me in – but the animosity between the Toon fanbase and the Guardian’s wayward north east football correspondent raises some interesting questions. Is it another instance of the London media just not getting it (see Raoul Moat article below)? Or is Taylor providing a useful objective critique of a criminally run club and a group of supporters unwilling to look injustice in the face if it might harm the team?
In support of the latter argument, it should be noted that Ms Taylor was one of the few people prepared to highlight the outrageousness of Steven (no relation) Taylor’s treatment towards the end of last season. As the promotion battle entered its final, critical phase, Taylor was hospitalized following a training ground bust-up with Carroll. Chris Hughton took no action. Meanwhile Taylor was left feeding through a straw in a Newcastle hospital, and Carroll was photographed at a 50 Cent gig proudly displaying his bandaged hands. This was not only a shocking demonstration of Carroll’s questionable taste in hip-hop; it also represents one of the very few really dodgy episodes in Hughton’s otherwise exemplary tenure as manager. Would, say, Ferguson or Wenger have tolerated such scandalous intramural delinquency?
However, while the incident and its handling undoubtedly needed drawing attention to, the stridency and righteousness of L. Taylor’s response was way OTT:
Carroll’s continued involvement appears a thoroughly depressing victory for pragmatism over principles and Hughton has surely been diminished by the entire sorry affair.
Newcastle’s manager won a UN commendation for anti-apartheid campaigning but as Carroll waved insouciantly to fans at Doncaster it seemed Hughton had suddenly lost sight of the bigger picture.
After doing brilliantly to keep Newcastle top of the table this season, he now looks weak and it is not impossible that this affair could yet spark a chain of events that may lead to him being replaced by a manager such as Mark Hughes or Steve McClaren next season.
If you were being generous, you might call this an overreaction, or a muddled confusion of disparate issues: the Steve Taylor incident, Hughton’s position as manager, his anti-apartheid past (which is surely utterly irrelevant here). Many Newcastle fans, however, responded with something less than sympathy. “Football’s most risible muckraker” was the cry of nufcblog.org, while “that bloody woman” became her epithet over at nufc.com, a title she holds to this day.
Is there an element of male chauvinism in these attacks? Perhaps. Taylor is a brilliant, outspoken and articulate female football writer in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. Besides, the north east, and England in general, desperately needs people who are able to cut through the self-regarding bullshit and small-c conservatism of football fandom when the occasion demands, as with the Steve Taylor-Andy Carroll incident. L.Taylor’s “principles over pragmatism” stance has a lot to be said for it, especially in a culture that has for far too long now been characterized by apathy and blithe acceptance of corporate “realism”.
Nevertheless, it’s ultimately difficult to defend Taylor’s often fanciful, wildly unfounded and inappropriately politicized comments, like the condescending description of Gateshead’s “working man’s” culture (what do those speech marks mean?!), and her absolutely bizarre character assassination of Chris Hughton:
Giving power to Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, Steve Harper and Nicky Butt, a man who as a Tottenham full-back had mixed in Trotskyite circles watched that ‘Politburo’ ensure his coaching drills and game plans were strictly adhered to.
Meanwhile the still left-leaning Hughton and the right-wing, brashly capitalist, Ashley formed an unexpectedly close union, their bond arguably deepened by mutual mistrust of the media.
At moments like this, Taylor embodies the substantial disconnect between Guardianista sanctimony and the brash – but essentially and invariably benign – mainstream of demotic north east football culture. In May, another Guardian journalist, Chris Arnot, published an article that included comments made by Chelsea’s “head of corporate social responsibility” Simon Taylor (no relation to either Steve or Louise) suggesting that there had been racist protests outside St James’s Park when Andy Cole made his debut there in 1993. The fact that these claims were so spectacularly and demonstrably spurious (combined with the minor detail that Cole had actually made his debut away at Swindon in the previous game) prompted a hasty retraction, but for many Toon fans the damage had already been done.
In similar fashion, on Monday the Guardian website ran with the headline “Joey Barton denies Nazi salute in Newcastle’s win over Aston Villa”. The victory was an emphatic one for NUFC, a strong intimation that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to stay up this year and reverse the long-running decline inflicted on the club by 15-odd years of corrupt and senseless administration. Yet Louise Taylor chose to draw attention to the meaningless gaffe of a player who surely now deserves one more shot at redemption. But by now this sort of condescension and misrepresentation has become wearily predictable. If Taylor and the Guardian continue to treat north east football players, managers, and fans as naïve, inarticulate punchbags on which to conduct personal vendettas cloaked as bien pensant, pseudo-ideological crusades, the discord is likely to continue for some time.
“More destructively this heritage dictates he has grown up in Gateshead surrounded by a frequently heavy drinking, “working man’s” culture which, sometimes, sees arguments resolved by fists rather than reason.”
There’s is really nothing left to add to this – kudos to Taylor Parkes over at WSC.
As ridicule continues to circle Joey Barton for the furry addition to his top lip, the man himself claiming he grew it “as a dare” (that old excuse), here is a quick reminder of a former Toon player who wore the ‘tache with pride; Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline.
In fact, Killer was so proud of his moustache that when it fell foul to a drunken prank, he seems, as the below anecdote recounted by another former Toon player John Beresford shows, to have lost, if not his power, then certainly his sanity!
“We were in Cyprus celebrating promotion and most of us had been on the drink for something like 24 hours after the Leicester 7-1 game. We’d been on the beach all day and Killer came back glowing, having fair skin and ginger hair. A lot of us grabbed a few hours kip before going back out again that night but a few of the lads had a couple more drinks in the hotel bar. Derek Fazackerley, John Murray and Barry Venison are the ones I can remember but there were one or two others as well. Not me…. Killer was wrecked and was about to pass out on the bar. Venners said for a joke that they should cut a bit of his hair off and see if he wakes up.
“Well, Killer duly passed out and a pair of scissors appeared. A little bit was snipped and Killer didn’t move. A little bit more followed, still nothing. And then half of his pony tale had gone – the other half still long. This looked a bit strange so all of it disappeared. Still Killer slept. Then they started on his moustache and that went. They left him slumped on the bar with bits of hair in his drink and scattered all around so that he would know what had happened when he woke.
“Eventually he did wake and he was absolutely fuming. Apparently it was like a volcano erupting. He started smashing the place up and the barman legged it, petrified. David Kelly knocked my door asking if I’d go and have a word and try and calm him down, as I’d got on well with Killer that year. ‘You must be bloody joking!’ I said, ‘I’m going nowhere near him until he’s sobered up a bit more! Eventually Derek Fazackerley went out to see him and had barely got a word or two out before Killer smacked him one. To be fair, Faz took it and thought he’d deserved it but the whole incident ruined the rest of the holiday. Killer never forgave those involved, although he thought the whole team was in on it, which they weren’t.
“He ended up shaving off his moustache and having all his hair levelled – leaving him with this massive ginger bob. It actually made him look a lot younger but it became like the Basil Fawlty sketch – “don’t mention the hair, I mentioned it once and I think I got away with it….”. However, on the plane back we linked up with some of the other lads who had gone to a different resort and they couldn’t help but notice. Not only did it spoil the holiday but things were never the same with Killer and he left in the January, which was a shame.”
p.s. A number of similarly amusing anecdotes from Bez’s time at the Toon can be found here: http://www.nufc.com/html/bezdiary-intro.html. Well worth a look!
p.p.s. My own Brian Kilcline story is that my dad once remove his in-grown toenail. And I was there when he did it.