Let's bring football home

13 November 2008

I for one would be a hypocrite if I said that you should only support your local team. Why should geographical proximity limit the football team, indeed any sports team that you support? You’ve all heard the one about the football-supporting Londoner derided by the British public for travelling 200 miles to watch a “home” game. That would describe about 90% of Manchester United supporters wouldn’t it? The rest coming from either Asia or Manchester? As a Red, I’ve heard it all too often myself and I can claim the moral high ground of at least living near Manchester, although the sleeping giants known as Stockport County just about class as my local league side.

But maybe these people have a point somewhere amidst their bitter jibes after yet another defeat to Sir Alex’s men. Maybe you should support your “local” team. I’ve come to ask myself in recent weeks why I have been neglecting one United – Cambridge, in favour of the redder, Manchester variety. Cambridge now after all is my local team. Why have I been missing out on watching live football when I could be watching Cambridge United striving for League status? Supporting Cambridge, or indeed any local team, brings with it an increased sense of euphoric glory with every triumph and an even bitter despair with every defeat that can’t be replicated in the top division.

It is at this local level where the heart and soul of football can still be found – your local teams and in your local area; where scores of youngsters up and down the land seek to fulfil their footballing dreams, whether for their Colts side or whilst playing Wembley singles. This is where football started out. This is where football will end. Increasingly it is the only way your average Joe Plumber and his family can experience the thrill that live sport can bring and often represents our only chance a students, often living miles away from home and far too often skint, a taste of what real football is like; not sitting in the pub pint in hand, but living and breathing every moment live on the field of play. And who’s to say it is any less meaningful?

Long gone are the halcyon days of the working-class hero spending his hard-earned Saturdays off down at the footy cheering on his beloved team; no booking offices, no touts, just through the turnstiles and straight onto the terraces. We all know the problems that became synonymous with terraces and British football fans, but there’s little doubting that this was where the real heart of football lay. The cost alone now for a Premiership game is eye-watering. A ticket, £40+; the programme, £5; food, £10; travel, £10+. Multiply that by 20 and you can see the pound signs in the executives’ eyes and the holes burning in your pockets. Match day at Abbey Stadium – a ticket, £10; the programme, £3; food, £5; travel, £0+ and you can get to the pub and home again in no time (should you want to of course). You only have to see the beaming pride of the mascots, boys and girls alike, come 3pm on Saturday to see what it means to them. Nick Hornby recounts vividly in his first novel, Fever Pitch, his experiences of watching Cambridge United whilst studying in the city. Too much hassle to travel to watch his beloved Arsenal, Hornby instead feasted on the talents of lower league football. He wasn’t merely an Arsenal supporter; he was a football supporter.

Herein lays the very essence of what supporting your local team is all about. Bar a stunning decade-or-more long run of incredible management and equally incredible players (or an improbable takeover by Andrew-Lloyd Webber in his search for Britain’s next footballing talent), the chances of making it to the Football League, let alone the top flight of English football, is but a pipe dream for most. It lies in the camaraderie, the inextricable bond with your hometown or even Univeristy-town club. A tightly-knit clan of management, players, directors, backroom staff and priceless volunteers make it as much a community, a family even, than any club in the upper echelons of football could ever dream of. They can have their worldwide supporters’ clubs, their Middle-Eastern benefactors and their equally exotic shirt sponsors (apologies to West Ham and West Brom supporters), but where will you find such an eclectic mix of untried youths and tough-tackling veterans? The football isn’t quite from the Arsene Wenger school of philosophy but there lies a beauty in all types of football. This is where schoolboy fantasies are borne. This is the base upon which all levels of football up to the Premiership have been built.

Local football?! It’s all about me…and it’s all about the U’s.