Friday, 12 March 2010

An Encounter at Clacket Lane

Saturday's coach journey to Welling included a fifteen minute stop at Clacket Lane services on the M25. As the coach pulled into the car park I noticed that we were pulling in alongside another coach with the exact same livery. It took a moment for the penny to drop, but eventually it did. My deduction was confirmed by the exclamation of a fellow passenger: 'It's the players' coach!'

And so it was. I tried to peer through the windows to see if I recognized anyone, but I could see only shadows through the two sets of tinted glass. Although my immediate reaction to this chance encounter was a mixture of delight and excitement, by the time I was alighting from the coach and preparing to share roadside facilities with my sporting heroes, I was feeling acutely awkward.

The reason for this is not easy to explain. It goes to the heart of the relationship between fans and players - a relationship that everyone is aware of but no one talks about much. Back in the days before I developed a passion for non-league football I thought I understood it. I was wrong.

As a kid growing up in Atlanta in the 80s, my heroes were the players of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. In the hundreds of games I attended over the years I never had a conversation with any of them. The idea that this would even be possible would have sounds absurd to me. The closest I ever came was on the rare occasion when I managed to elbow past other fans, and with outstretched arms, clutching a pen and something they could write on I would say, 'Will you sign this please?' I still have ever hat, baseball and scrap of paper those players graced with their signatures. They are like holy relics.

Twenty years later I find myself in a equally passionate relationship with Bath City Football Club, but with a level of intimacy I am constantly surprised by. I first became aware that things were different a bit over a year ago at an evening match at Eastleigh. At the conclusion of the pre-match warm-up Matt Coupe walked over to where I was standing and began to lean against the fence to stretch his legs. He then began engaging in the entirely normal activity of chatting to the person nearby him. Or he tried, rather. I was too tongue-tied to say anything remotely intelligent. At one point he stretched out his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Matt.' I wanted to simultaneously laugh and pinch myself. 'Yes, yes, I know!' I said.

I've had several conversations with the players since then. I'm always nervous to the point of making an idiot of myself, of course. I am, however, always struck by how normal the players seem. I should not really be surprised. They all have careers outside football and lead otherwise normal lives with mortgages and crowded commuter trains like the rest of us.

In fact, the City players seem so normal when I talk to them I always become conscious of how abnormal I am. Non-league football fans are part of a fairly small subculture. The more dedicated ones of us are viewed by society at large as only a few grades up from Trekkies and plane spotters. We do, after all, spend our Saturdays on coaches making 300 mile round trips to stand in the cold with a few hundred fellow-abnormals and cheer on teams most people are unaware even exist. If you are lucky then your loved-ones will laugh it off as an amusing eccentricity.

I can't help but wonder, though, if they were not non-league footballers, would City's players be giving up their Saturdays to travel to places like Bishop's Stortford or Thurrock? Would they be travelling, like, me in a replica kit, clutching banners and a packed lunch? I don't mean to question their loyalty. I just get the feeling that they are a lot cooler than the die hard element of their support. It is the sort of thing you become aware of when you see a player in the bar after a match wearing a smart shirt and tie, or a dapper earth tone ensemble, and you are wearing a garish black and white striped shirt with matching hat and scarf.

And so I entered Clackett Lane services with some trepidation. The first thing I saw was City's manager Adie Britton reclining on a coin operated massaging chair, smiling and laughing with a couple players. I kind of wanted to walk up and share in the joke, but I couldn't for the life of me think of what to say to a football manager while he received a mechanical massage. 'Great for getting rid of those pre-match nerves, huh Adie?' or, 'Bet you'd love to have one of these chairs back at Twerton Park?' Adie is a nice man and I didn't think he deserved to be bored to death before leading the team into an important contest.

Further on, the rest of the players stood in a circle outside of WH Smith's. I felt like the awkward girl at the school dance as I headed in their direction: simultaneously hoping to be recognized and to pass by unnoticed. I skirted round them cautiously, self-consciously clad head to toe in Bath City merchandise, and headed for the crisps rack. I employed a forced nod and half-smile when I made eye-contact.

As I stood queueing for the checkout I realised there was another layer of awkwardness I hadn't given much though to before. A couple places ahead of me in the queue stood Marcus Browning. The veteran City midfielder has been the subject of a considerable amount of criticism from supporters this season. I consider myself lucky that this season I haven't had many occasions to write anything critical about City players, but Browning is an exception. I didn't hold back when I described his theatrics that led to a straight red card against Hampton back in September. Would he have read it? Would he know who I am? It seemed highly unlikely, but I couldn't help but feel a little bit guilty as he stood only a few feet away. He is not some sort of unapproachable Premiership star. He is a normal guy like me in the queue at Smith's. Who am I to take him to task on a public website that could be ready by anyone? What if his mother read it?

As we passed each other at the exit Browning gave me the same awkward nod-and-smile combo I had given the other players a few minutes earlier. I felt a small wave of guilt and carried on. I walked past that same group of players and tried to pretend we were all just fellow travellers stopping at a motorway services (admittedly, though I blew it when I stopped to take their picture).

Back in the safety of the supporters coach I began to relax again. For the rest of the day there would be reassuring boundaries between me and my heroes. There might be an embrace after a goal celebration, but even then there would be a wall separating us. I shuddered, though, when I though about what it would be like to come across the players like that on the return drive after a dispiriting defeat. Or what if I had gone into the men's room and found myself standing at a urinal next to Chris Holland? Would it be possible to wee while standing next to Chris Holland? It made what I had just gone through seem tame in comparison.

The surprising thing I've had to face since becoming a Bath City supporter is that I want a bit of distance between me and the players I adore. It is surprising to me because during an entire childhood of worshiping athletes from afar, I always assumed that it would be much better to worship them from short range. The reality, though, is that it can be a bit embarrassing (and maybe a bit creepy for the players). The obvious solution is not to diefy the players, but just to treat them like the normal people that they are. I can't help but wonder, though, if that wouldn't take all the fun out of it.

As I write this I wonder if this awkwardness I feel is maybe just unique to me. Perhaps I have just brought hang-ups with me from following large American sports teams. If I had grown up being much closer to the people I pay to watch would this whole non-league experience seem normal now? Maybe. There is in fact one player I have had contact with who has been so relaxed, and so unassuming, I can't help but wonder if the awkwardness I sense is just something I've made up.

I am speaking of the Bath City captain, Jim Rollo. I contacted him on Facebook once (as I do with players from time to time to clarify points for this blog, and always with great caution). He sent me a very helpful reply. He then, much to my surprise, requested to be my 'friend'. Also, perhaps uniquely in the history of sports, he has signed up as a member of the Bath City supporters group known as 'the Legion.' He sends us encouraging messages when he thinks we've done a good job cheering the team on. When we send out group invitations on Facebook to find out which of us is going to which match, we always find that Jim Rollo has confirmed that he will be attending (and to be fair, he does attend every match). It is really an incident that happened offline, though, that I think is most telling. It is perhaps my favourite ever Bath City moment, even though I wasn't even present to witness it.

City were drawn against League Two club Grimsby Town in the first round proper of the FA Cup this season. As this was a visit by a non-league club to a league ground, it was possibly the most important match many of City's players will play in their entire careers. City's program editor, Mark Stillman, also acts as one of the club's photographers, and he managed to secure a media pass to patrol the sidelines during the match. It was an especially big day for Mark, because besides watching his beloved Bath City try to force an upset against league opposition, it was also his birthday.

A few minutes after City took the lead in the first half off of a Chris Holland header, the ball was struck into the crowd by a Grimsby player. Mark got ahold of the ball, and Rollo came towards him gesturing that he wanted it to take the throw. As he did this he said, 'yes Mark, Happy Birthday.' Rollo threw the ball in, and then resumed playing the match of his life.

This is the type of story that makes non-league football so appealing. Of course, this appeal relies on exactly the sort of encounter between fans and player that is potentially so uncomfortable. Personally, I've decided I'm going to have to get used to it. I want to spend my Saturdays cheering normal, genuine people instead of Premiership prima donnas. If that means that occasionally I end up feeling like a dork when I speak to some of them, so be it. I will, however, draw the line at taking a wee while standing next to Chris Holland. That would just be taking things too far.


  1. It's not unique to you at all Ned, I feel just the same. For a few years in the mid- to late-1980s I used to regularly travel on the City team coach but even that didn't cure the sense of awkwardness.
    Manchester Romans

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