Grassroots football clubs are an antidote to the Beautiful Game’s ugly scenes.
Whether it’s Stonewall FC providing a safe space for gay players or Lewes FC becoming the first club in the world to pay both male and female players equally, grassroots football and its fans are setting an example bigger clubs should play by.
There’s a quote by the French philosopher Albert Camus that I find myself thinking of from time to time when I’m watching football.
“Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men,” declared Camus, who himself played in goal for a time, as part of a Racing Universitaire d’Alger team that won both the North African’s Champions Cup and the North African Cup twice in the 1930s, “I owe it to football…”
Recently, watching the fury that’s come to define modern British society spill out from terrace to pitch, first at Edinburgh’s Easter Road ground, then in Birmingham at St. Andrews, where a City supporter entered the playing area and poleaxed Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish – subsequently landing a fourteen-week prison sentence – then at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Camus’ quote was far from my mind. Come to think of it, I haven’t thought about said quote for a long time. Right now, The Beautiful Game feels very ugly indeed.
“The National Game came can show the best society has to offer too
As the National Game, the health of football is a great vessel to observe the health of society. And yet, you might not know it, such is the volume of the top flights’ Sky Sports-amplified roar, but what happened this weekend really doesn’t reveal the full story about where football finds itself in 2019. The further down the football pyramid you go, from stadium to ground, ground to pitch, ending up at clubs who are fighting to retain a connection with that very word and the role they can play within the communities they represent, you’ll find a grassroots revolution happening. It’s one staffed by fans and volunteers, determined to show The National Game came can show the best society has to offer too.
Since 1991, London’s Stonewall FC have gone on to be the world’s most prominent LGBT football team. They formed after founder Aslie Pitter – since 2011, an MBE – placed an advert in Time Out magazine asking if any other gay players fancied a kick-about at weekends. He was overwhelmed with the response. Pitter knew from personal experience the need for such an outlet. He’d previously been in the first-team at Clapham Old Boys. Upon learning of his sexuality he was demoted to the fourth team. Thanks to his and many others efforts, Stonewall have now provided a safe space for gay players to thrive and flourish for twenty-eight years.
You’ll often see Stonewall FC playing matches with Clapton Community Football Club, who, after a dispute with the club’s owners on how money was being spent at the club, recently broke away from legendary non-league name Clapton FC (the side who once had the equally legendary Walter Tull on their books, who as a black man playing for the side in 1908 was quite the pioneer) to form a left-wing, socialist-minded community football club. Tull’s name continues to be sung on the terraces, over a hundred-years since dying, fighting in France, during the Great War. Clapton FC were revitalised in recent years after a fan group formed called ‘Clapton Ultras’, taking gates from single digits to three figures. They took inspiration from anti-fascist fan groups around Europe; in Turkey, Besiktas. In Poland, Lech Poznan. In Germany, most notably, St Pauli.
The influence of Hamburg’s FC St Pauli – the most famous anti-fascist name in football; the merch their iconic skull and crossbones logo adorns keeps the club in business, not their gate receipts – is significant in understanding the social conscience adopted by many in the British lower leagues. One such name is the Conference South’s Dulwich Hamlet.
Flags at Hamlet matches will proclaim ‘Communism is inevitable’ and ‘Ordinary Morality Is For Ordinary Football Clubs’. But this isn’t just hipster posturing. Hamlet hold drives for local food banks, the NHS and trade unions, and in 2015, hosted a friendly against Stonewall FC that raised thousands of pounds for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Premier League footballers might wear rainbow laces for a week or two, but further down the leagues people are letting their actions speak volumes.
Where Clapton played their matches at the Old Spotted Dog, Clapton CFC play at the Stray Dog in Forest Gate, a ground they’ve built from the bottom up in nearby Walthamstow. They’ve held fundraisers for homeless charities, hold special events on International Women’s Day, flags and songs declaring REFUGEES WELCOME are seen and heard on the terraces each match-day, and at the start of this season, they launched their Spanish Republic-themed away shirt; a tribute to the 2,500 men and women from Britain and Ireland who travelled to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to fight against fascism. At the time of writing, they’ve sold close to twelve-thousand of them, around the globe. Funds are earmarked to help the International Brigade Memorial Trust, which works to commemorate the efforts of the fighters, and educate new generations about the dangers of fascism.
The news cycle often concerns itself with the growing disconnect between football and fan – and with good reason. This season Tottenham Hotspur priced their peak season ticket at a whopping £2200; that’s an obscene amount of money to see a club, located within one of London’s poorest areas, kick a football about every other week. So much of the grassroots revolution concerns clubs trying to offer something different. Trying to think differently. To just be better.
At Lewes FC, the launch of the EqualityFC campaign in 2017, saw the club become the first – and currently only – club in world football to have equal playing budgets for men and women. Elsewhere, former non-league journeyman Bobby Kasanga, a once promising player who lost his career to his involvement in gang violence, set up Hackney Wick FC upon his release from prison in 2015, to try to help discourage other black teenagers from making the same mistakes he did. Kasanga is now taking his team into prisons to help with rehabilitation efforts.
There are hundreds of other examples; if something is going wrong at the top end of football, at the bottom, something is going very right indeed. ‘Ordinary Morality Is For Ordinary Football Clubs’ proclaims the flag on the terraces at Dulwich Hamlet. There’s something in that, there really is.
The above article by James McMahon first published on bigissue.com in Mar, 2019.