The Plastic Hippo

March 11, 2013

A game of two halves

Filed under: Birmingham,Media,Society,Sport,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 2:00 am
Image via morethanthe games.co.uk

Image via morethanthegames.co.uk

Some months ago, I was persuaded to be complicit in an elaborate deception involving beer, non league football and a surprise birthday party.

A friend had decided to organise a surprise birthday party for her significant other and I was tasked with keeping the birthday boy occupied between midday and six pm on a September Saturday to allow for the secret preparations. Realising that the only person who does not enjoy a surprise party is the victim of all the mysterious fuss, I joined the conspiracy against my better judgement. Given that his preferred leisure active is a complete anathema to me, golf was out of the question and an alternative was required. After extensive research, it appeared that there is very little for two portly, middle-aged men to do in Walsall on a Saturday afternoon other than become incredibly drunk. This was not an option as the evening`s celebration was specifically designed around people becoming incredibly drunk.

Being an intelligent man, my victim knows my character well enough to smell a rat if any encounter did not involve booze and so, as a pre-emptive double bluff, we arranged to meet at high noon in the Manor Arms situated in the delightful hamlet of Rushall. This might seem counterintuitive but it was all part of the sneaky plan. After a couple of pints of rather fine ale, drunk unusually slowly, we adjourned to The Boathouse for lunch before heading to the magnificent Dales Lane Stadium to enjoy the spectacle of Rushall Olympic take on the mighty Burscough in the Evo-Stik League Northern Premier Division.

Non league football is an absolute gem. The sound of every crunching tackle, leather on skull, studs on shins and the inventive placement of unsubtle obscenities are all clearly audible just a few feet away from the touchline. This is a million miles away from the pampered prima donnas of the Premier League. This is real football and these are players who play for the love of the game and not for the love of money. The recent heroics displayed by Walsall Wood away to Guernsey in a cup replay seem nobler even in defeat than the petulant shrieking that comes from the management and players at more affluent corporate brands. It is difficult to pin-point exactly when top flight professional football stopped being a sport and became a business and exactly when supporters were reclassified as customers but you can bet your Arsenal replica match shirt that it was at about the time when television rights were put up for auction. Money, it seems, is good in the box and keeps its shape at the back.

There are some traditionalist who hark back to the days when football matches started at three o`clock on a Saturday and half seven on a Tuesday or Wednesday and a cup of Bovril and a meat pie at half time was the food and drink of the Gods. The Roy of the Rovers nostalgia has been replaced by shrewd marketers who realise that tribal loyalty to a football club makes for lucrative exploitation opportunities. Important televised games now have 8-05 kick-offs so as not to disturb soap opera schedules and the needs of advertisers and anyone caught trying to smuggle in a bottle of Mackeson faces a life ban for being a hooligan. Television is more profitable than gate receipts and if any life-long supporters are unhappy with that then tough; there are plenty of others willing to support success rather than location. The Anfield faithful once unfurled a huge banner at a home game against Manchester United which proclaimed: “The Kop Welcomes Man U Fans to the North West of England”.

There was a time when success was achieved through skill, hard work, youth coaching programmes and intelligent management. Now success can be simply bought. The aforementioned Manchester United were the first to buy trophies by excepting huge investment from some very dodgy businessmen “entrepreneurs” which attracted silverware and huge debt in equal measures. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City and now Tottenham Hotspur saw the writing on the advertising hoardings and took the same road to Wembley. Other clubs, desperate for top four billing in the money spinning Champions League are searching for their own dodgy businessmen “entrepreneurs” to fund a little bit of glory. Stalwarts like Aston Villa, Newcastle, Everton and West Ham do not have a hope of playing Barcelona or Inter Milan because they cannot afford to simply go out and buy world class players and boast a substitute bench that could probably beat Brazil.

Some grass roots supporters who do not remember coats for goalposts and the centre forward travelling to the match on a tram, have suggested a radical remedy to this unlevel playing field. Some propose a cap on the amount of money a club can spend on the transfer market set at a level of what the least affluent Premier League club can afford. This would encourage home grown talent and avoid the embarrassing spectacle of popularist politicians screaming against immigration in the commons yet screaming support for their favourite overseas players from the comfort of the director`s box. Reformers would also like to see a return to the former European Cup format where only the league champion qualified and went head to head against teams of herring fishermen from Iceland and Cypriot olive farmers.

It is never likely to happen as long as the new fans demand success at any price. The rather scary Sir Alex Fergusson threw a strop and refused to talk to anyone after one of his star players was sent off for nearly decapitating an opponent. Chelsea “fans” continue to boo and offer abuse to Rafa Benitez after coming back from two down at Old Trafford and only being fourth in the premiership. After a three nil walloping at home against lowly Wigan, Everton “fans” were screaming for the head of David Moyes; a man 24 hours earlier they claimed was a God. Funny old game.

The day at Dales Lane went extremely well. The deception was successful and Olympics put three past Burscough without reply. There was passion and commitment both on and off the pitch that had nothing to do with money, merchandising or television rights but had everything to do with community and identity.

When the surprise was finally revealed, the birthday boy turned to me with gritted teeth, a wagging finger and an expression of betrayal. I feared that he would never trust me again such was my success at straight faced lying. However, a week or so later, he called me a suggested we go to Dales Lane again and we did and we did again.

Next time, we might go and watch Walsall Wood at home if Olympic are playing away. It could be a game of two pints and it`s much better than watching the telly.

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