Gonna get deep down

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

7 April 2005

Just as there are those who believe football began with the Premiership, there are plenty who think Primal Scream's career began when they put 'Loaded' out. But to those of us who'd listened to 'Velocity Girl' back in '86, seeing them hit the charts was a bit of a JFK moment. I remember where I was, at any rate: reading the top 40 in the Daily Mirror in the Havelock sixth form common room. Suddenly Bobby Gillespie was no longer our daft bugger in flowery shirts; he was about to become global public property. My horror equalled my amazement.

It's not about elitism or being cool. It just feels nice having a secret, is all. (I didn't stop buying Primal Scream records because everybody else was buying them; I stopped buying them because they turned shite. A significant distinction, pop kids.)

Football, likewise, has changed from a minority interest into a mainstream consumer commodity. And not a very edifying one at that. When I went to university in the early nineties, the posh lasses who cracked on to me (after putting together the two and two of my accent and my poems, and getting the five that I was the new Ted Hughes or something) would invariably recoil in shock upon discovering that I watched football. I bet they're all season ticket holders at Highbury now.

Grimsby and Cleethorpes, of course, remain largely impervious to social trends. The down side is that there are still racists at Blundell Park, but it at least means that we're not joined by the nouveau fan. No wealthy wearer of green wellies asks us which one is the prop forward and where they can buy olive ciabatta at half time. There is no sign of John Thompson's Fast Show character saying: "I think I'll give that Scunthorpe City a try next week!"

Still, it's hard not to feel tainted by association. Every time you read about how Abramovich made his money. Every time a gajillion-pound world-class Premiership player wins a penalty by diving. Every time the rich clubs press UEFA to rig the so-called Champions League to make them even richer. Every time Beckham does another bloody awful TV ad. It's light years away from Blundell Park, and yet somehow it's still just up the road.

So, you keep asking yourself, why don't you go out and do something less morally compromising instead? Since Rooney's dive ended Arsenal's unbeaten run, I keep saying I'll ditch Vodafone. In fact I keep saying I'll give up football altogether one day. But since the other night that day may be further away than ever, damn it, because the other night I fell in love with football for the second time.

It was Hallam v Sheffield, in the Premier Division of the Northern Counties East League. And my God, it was beautiful.

Think of those dim grey photographs of moustachioed Victorian players in long trousers. Gentlemen drawing up constitutions in meetings over public houses, establishing football teams to keep cricketers fit over the winter. The rules of the game still half-written. All of that began when William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick - a wine seller and the chairman of a silver plating company - made Sheffield FC the world's first association football club in 1857. The ink was still wet on the Treaty of Paris, which had ended Russia's conflict with Britain, France and Turkey in the Crimean War, while Sigmund Freud and George Bernard Shaw were still in whatever they used for nappies in those days.

By the time the Football League kicked off without them in 1888, Sheffield FC - or 'Club', to use their bluntly definitive nickname - were already more than 30 years old. They had helped set up Sheffield United as a kind of professional side project, enabling themselves to maintain amateur status, and then watched the professional game do a VHS to the amateurs' Betamax. After the Blades nicked Bramall Lane, Sheffield never secured a ground of their own, and were shunted all over the place in the late 20th century, finally acquiring the Coach and Horses ground in Dronfield - a couple of miles south of the city - as recently as 2001.

Sheffield FC: Coach and HorsesSheffield's Coach and Horses ground shortly after opening in 2001

Back in the beginning, though, it was only after three years of Sheffield going up to the big kids in the park and saying: "Do you want a match? Come on - gentlemen against labourers!" that Hallam FC made an appearance. At a mere 145 years of age, Hallam may be only the second oldest club on the planet, but in Sandygate they retain the world's oldest football ground - where in 1860 they and Sheffield contested the game's first ever local derby.

So football's not coming home: it's been here all along. And here in April 2005, as the number 51 bus ambles up through Broomhill and Crosspool, arriving at Sandygate under damp, heavy skies, I'm coming home to football.

Now the leaders of Victorian Britain may been incorrigible moral hypocrites, and, yes, maybe they oversaw an appalling mass exploitation of child labour; but whoever planned their football grounds could teach us a thing or two. Specifically, the sadistic militant teetotallers who placed Chester's Deva Stadium several kilometres of industrial despair away from the nearest licensed premises need to be forcefed a few pints of Deuchars IPA before a Hallam match and then frogmarched the five seconds between the Plough and the Sandygate turnstiles.

Still thirsty, we make for the clubhouse and procure another round. It's nearly kick-off time, but we'll be able to take our pints out onto the terraces, won't we? Not tonight. "You could do it if it were a cup game," a club official tells us, "but not for a league game. Rules are different." It is a measure of how much we're already enjoying the evening, though, that this bureaucratic oddity is much more endearing than maddening.

"And there might be somebody from the FA here tonight, with it being the derby match," adds the Hallam guy. "We don't want to get in trouble."

Nor did we - but spectator etiquette tends to vary between different points on the non-League pyramid, and another comical absurdity crops up midway through the first half, when a middle-aged Hallam supporter (or another official; you couldn't be sure) takes exception to the profanities with which one of us is berating the referee - and earnestly requests us to "shut the fuck up".

The game, anyway, is going on briskly enough. Sheffield look bright going forward, with winger Chris White (lately of Barnsley and Wednesday) finding endless space and using the ball well. At the other end Club look less tasty, though, and Hallam take an early lead with a header from their ex-Sheffield striker Peter Smith, as the visitors' defence stands paralysed.

Their equaliser comes a quarter of an hour later, and no-one has expected it to have taken so long. A fine cross from White is calmly converted by the excellently named Caine Cheetham, and when Sheffield then take the lead through Richard Carrington a rout looks likely. But more ponderous defending allows Hallam to make it two apiece, and it's only by virtue of a late penalty that Club end the first half ahead.

Now I've seen a bit of non-League here and there. I like all that changing ends at half time stuff, and I like the humility of it as well. I like it that the players are normal blokes who will be mending people's central heating the next day, rather than grown-up children who believe they will be respected for setting fire to 50-pound notes in nightclubs to demonstrate their wealth.

But tonight something feels different. Tonight something has cracked the crusty cynicism that the Beckhams and the Rooneys, the Shepherds, Kenyons and Abramoviches, deposit over your soul.

The history is part of it, yeah. The beer, the tin roof, the madly sloping pitch: these all help. But there's something about the way the game's being played. Something like honest commitment. Even five steps below the Football League, the level of skill is more than appreciable, and Sheffield's clever movement off the ball creates attacking options all night. But beyond that, both sets of players significantly gee each other up until Sheffield's victory is unalterable. The communication and the workrate - the swearing and the sweating - suggest that these players give considerably more of a toss about the upshot of their efforts than many of their professional counterparts often seem to about the result of theirs.

Caine Cheetham scoresCaine Cheetham nets in Sheffield's 5-1 win last time the teams met

It ends up 5-3 to Sheffield, pressing Hallam closer to the division's floor and keeping Club's promotion hopes on the life support (at least until the weekend, when a last-gasp 3-3 draw with Borrowash Victoria - winless all season - will print in 144-point bold italic the need for summertime strengthening at the back). Drizzle masks the panorama over the glowing city as 250 spectators dissipate into the suburb, some still enthusing over Sheffield's spectacular fourth goal, which began the second half while I was still using a non-League urinal (also known as a wall).

Elated, I'm chattering drunkenly. Show me the way to Glasshoughton Welfare! It's that rush you feel when pure phenomenon washes through your jadedness like summer rain through a sweaty shirt. When you solve a cryptic clue or you fall in love, even for the second time. Yeah. Tonight's pilgrimage to the birthplace of football has given us a refreshing bit of perspective, and the next time Rooney 'goes to ground' in the other team's penalty area I can remind myself that football has been around for a hell of a lot longer than he has. And the purest form of the game, which we've witnessed tonight, will still be with us long after he's gone.

God knows what William Prest and Nathaniel Creswick would have made of Rooney, though. Or Bobby Gillespie, for that matter.

Profuse thanks to David Dean of the Sheffield fanzine Behind The Flag for supplying the photographs used above