“Like religious pilgrimages, the more discomfort you experience, the greater your experience is.”
Few are the books about soccer that are genuinely compelling. The dry tactics and training manual is ever present, the achingly dull memoir that uses football as a means to sling the reader from one banality to another, the atrocious piece of sports fiction that fails to arouse fantasies in even the most die-hard supporters, and then the accomplished, well research and composed nonfiction work that opens your eyes to how varied yet shared the soccer experience is. Fortunately, Mat Guy’s Another Bloody Saturday falls into this last category.
Reading Guy’s book I couldn’t help but think of Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona, but Guy takes as his pursuit not just a single team but the whole of non-league and lower division football in England with a smattering of women’s soccer and the international game on the most obscure level. But it’s not just a chronicle of English football. Another Bloody Saturday details a kind of love of the game that will resonate will all sports fans from any country. I know that reading Guy’s book had two immediate effects on me–first, I had to begin a new game of Football Manager with Accrington Stanley (I was fired after leading them to League One) and second, to find more to read and to write of the non-league experience here in the US. But outside of my merely personal enjoyment, Guy’s prose is fluid and engaging. His writing makes you feel that you are having a conversation in the terraces, in your supporter’s section, or at the bar among friends.
It’s right to say that “Guy has tapped into something universal when he proves again and again with his stories that the long-suffering loyalty of the sports fan is richly rewarded in numerous ways.” Although time and again he writes that he wants to celebrate and chronicle the small club so to reconnect himself and other with the game, Guy is at his best when he checks the easy bitterness at the door. What I mean by this is the low hanging fruit of bewailing the corruption of the game by television money and the utter distance between the casual and the elite player. It still finds its way into his narrative, “life doesn’t revolve around the English Premier League, and this match, this stadium, this atmosphere of simple pride in their culture and identity proved that,” and it’s because utterly no one would disagree that we don’t need to go on about it. What we need are Guy’s stories about witnessing “a non-league manager climb into a stand and offer a supporter who had been haranguing him the whole match his money back, on the promise that he ‘fucked off.'” That’s the heart of football, that’s the romance of soccer.
And Guy captures it. Part of how he does so is by translating his own supporter passion (epitomized by his gameday program collection that exceeds 1200) from individualist hobbying to an active quest to bring more people into the tribe. When Guy randomly invites a coworker to a match, he’s stunned and charmed when she goes all in:
‘Yeah, alright,’ she replies, to my considerable surprise. ‘But it’s tomorrow,’ I warned her. ‘That’s fin. can you pick me up?’ From one throwaway comment doth a freakin’ monster grow! Effie quickly fell in love with the atmosphere, the passion, the camaraderie and everything else that is associated with following a lower league football team.
Going to these matches, being with other supporters, and bringing others in “was a blessing and a joy” allowing Guy “to delve into another side, a more honest and believable side to modern football in England, taking in grounds full of character and soul, rarely troubled by success.” His tour is not just of the corners of English football, the Accrington Stanleys and the AFC Wimbledons, but of the ultra-minnows on the international stage, the wholly unique and unknown world leagues like the Faroe Islands, and the too often and unfairly ignored women’s professional soccer. To this last, Guy makes it a point to celebrate the great Kelly Smith of Arsenal:
Kelly Smith can do things with a football that simply baffle me, and leave me in awe and wonder. In the 2014 Women’s FA Cup final she found herself marked by two or three players, facing the touchline no arsenal teammate close by; but instead of knocking it out of play she turned, jinked, dummied with the ball at her feet and left those opponents behind to set up another Arsenal attack. It was simply amazing. And she has done it her entire career, goals, passes, pieces of skill that make your heart race. Yet I doubt she appears near the top of many armchair football fans list of players of the 21st century and I doubt many of awe-inspiring moments have been captured by TV cameras. Why? She is a woman, and the women’s game is not given the time of day or the respect that it deserves in this country.
Doing so does take us to task for not seeking out, for not paying attention to this kind of soccer not opprobriously but as a means to prod us into embracing more of the game. Here in the US there is similarly a fantastic women’s league and the national team is vastly more successful than its counterpart ever will be. It’s not about one over the other, it’s about a fuller experience that brings more robust joy.
There is joy in local game of the non-league, a joy that comes through not just in supporters but in players. Guy gives us brief vignettes demonstrating this:
Lewis Haldane. Really? Could this be the same Lewis Haldane who was in the Bristol Rovers squad that beat Southampton 3-2 with a last minute screamer in the Saints’ first season down in League One, back in 2009? A quick flick through the programme to the visitor’s player pictures confirmed that it was him a veteran of over 200 Football League games for Rovers and Port Vale. What on earth is a player of that caliber doing here? As I read on his profile revealed that a serious knee injury had finished his professional career. Fair play, I thought, as he walked out to a smattering of 100 or so souls lining the pitch; a far cry from the thousands he would have become used to playing in front of during his pro days. Clearly he just wanted to continue playing the game he loved, and if injury meant he couldn’t in the pro leagues, he would drop down as far as necessary in order to do so.
Or Adeoye Yusuff of Dagenham & Redbridge FC who asked “if it would be alright to serve his notice at the restraurant where he had worked as a waiter, as well as signing his pro contract. He didn’t want to let down those that had helped him while he was a part-time player; he didn’t want to leave them short staffed just because he had an immediate opportunity to play in the Football League.”
This aura is what Guy is trying to capture in Another Bloody Saturday. It’s personal for him, an attempt to reconnect with feeling he had going to Salisbury matches with his now dementia addled grandfather. But it isn’t merely subjective, it’s an experience that Guy feels compelled to share, the good and deep affection of the sport. Guy calls it “Accrington magic”
among all the jokes, chants, and songs, came a moment that was quite possibly the best that I have ever seen at a football match. It’s hard to know how many of the 2000 strong crowd even saw it, and if it didn’t get caught on film for posterity then I guess it will have to join the ranks of glorious lower league mythical moments, passed down from supporter to supporter in lieu of the multiple angles it may have been captured on if it had happened in the top flight. But for those who did see it, well I hope it lives in their memories as long as it will in mine! On a rare Stanley attack, and with yet another rendition of Twist and Shout in full swing, Shay McCartan volleyed a shot high and wide up into the stand we were sat in. It hurtled toward the ultras, one of whom instinctively launched himself at it, planting a diving deader high up into the rafters before tumbling over the empty row of seats in front of him. Silence. One second, two. Then up he stood, arms stretched, and belted the first line of his favourite The Beatles song out at the top of his voice, imploring all that could hear him to shake it, then to twist and shout as if their lives depended on it.
but each of us can and does have our own term for the same feeling. We each have our own and shared stories that embody it. This is why I long for more people to see and experience not just the pro game here in the United States but also our non-league landscape. Non-league America is the dusty converted baseball stadium of the Tulsa Athletics, the boisterous fans of Chattanooga FC and Detroit City, the supporter willed into creation of Nashville FC and the Birmingham Hammers, and the DIY volunteerism of Minneapolis City among so many other teams I can’t name here. But sites like Non-League America, micro-presses like Byline Press, and author projects like Love Thy Soccer are just some of the venues and folks striving to bring the kind of affection, magic that Guy identifies to the US.
Mat Guy’s book isn’t just well-executed and intimate, it is inspiring and affirming. I hope soccer fans will read this book and be driven to write their own story of their team. We will all continue to watch the elite players and teams on television and streaming; we will all continue to have a queer tribal allegiance to teams from cities we have never and will never see. Nor should we cease. Guy’s book takes pains to show us the sport is all around if only we look. To alter a phrase from the supporters of FC United of Manchester, we have love enough for both.
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