We get a bad rap don’t we, us football fans?
We’re all skinhead, racist, yobs if you ask a certain part of society, but the majority of those on the terraces week in week out will happily disprove that myth.
As is so often the case, the good news stories often get overlooked. Now there’s a new breed of football fan emerging, one so far from that certain stereotype, one that has its nucleus in the four stands surrounding a football pitch but has an impression throughout society.
These fans, ‘ultras’ to some, although tongue very firmly in cheek when saying so, are usually found circulating a plethora of non-league grounds, where football is still football. Clubs are a pillar of the community, players are on first name terms with the fans. Down to earth. No frills. Football.
In the Premier League, Crystal Palace have been leading the way on the ‘ultras’ scene with their Holmesdale Fanatics, you’ve seen the flags, heard the songs, felt them jumping up and down. They are the envy of many supporters up and down the country, but those who have a keen eye on happenings in the lower echelons of the football pyramid will know they are not alone.
Dulwich Hamlet get all the plaudits, with an average home gate of over 2,000 in the National League South since their return to Champion Hill. The pink and blue scarves seen as a status symbol in areas of South London. ‘The Rabble’ – tagged with the tedious ‘indie football fan’ tag – are widely known for their left-wing stance, with fundraising for a number of causes in the past, including local hospitals and the homeless.
In many ways they set the bar, and showed there is more to football than 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. The behemoth that is football fandom can be used for so much more than shouting vitriol at the goalkeeper, linesman, or opposing fans in the stands. Now, in small pockets of the country, other groups of fans are following suit, enjoying the football, but acknowledging the wider picture around the country.
Step forward Eastbourne Town, who ply their trade in the Southern Combination Premier Division, English football’s ninth tier. On the face of things, just another side knocking around in the sleepy Sussex seaside town, what with Borough, United, and Langney Wanderers all competing for local bragging rights.
But if you take a trip to The Saffrons – the wonderfully named ground due to the fact the medicinal plant was once grown in the area – you will find the perfect ointment to cure your tiredness of modern day football.
This group of supporters have revolutionised the club’s fanbase. They’ve got drums, they’ve got tambourines, saxophones, flags. The works. It’s reaping rewards too, with crowds tripling since their formation three years ago.
As we travelled down to the seaside on a January afternoon, the chill outside is bitter, but the welcome from everybody at the club is the complete opposite. Cups of tea and biscuits on arrival, this didn’t seem the place for non-league’s latest band of ‘ultras’ to be residing. But as kickoff arrived, so did the drums, and songs, and various items of ‘ultra’ paraphernalia. Sadly, no more pyrotechnic displays, after a previous match was delayed due to the smoke on the terraces affecting visibility.
Doubly sadly, no saxophone on show today, with over 50 of ‘The Pressure’ in attendance, I’m told it’s a quiet day on the terraces by Ryan, a well-bearded man who has been here from the start, who explains the formation of the group:
“We wanted to create something which we could’ve all been part of together. The people who started it are a really good mix of people, who are a similar age, and have known each other for years.
“They’ve been around the music scene, but are also into football and had nothing to do and nothing to do locally,” he says, supping on his pint as the game goes on, an act that is a distant memory for many a football fan these days. Another string to the bow of the non-league game.
For years gone by football clubs were the crux of the community, bringing towns together. In a time when the country seems so bitterly divided, Pier Pressure are aiming to do the same once again. Taking clubs such as St Pauli in Germany and Dulwich Hamlet as an example, they aim to do similar here.
Something which is much easier said than done, as another member Giles elaborates, “It’s really easy to do this sort of stuff in an area which is naturally left wing but Eastbourne isn’t. It’s a middle class place that voted Brexit, that is right wing and to do something like this here, we think is a lot more important.”
As the local area benefits from the donations to the local food bank, and collections for the numerous local charities, the goodwill doesn’t stop there. As Town prepared for an away trip to Windsor FC with the royal wedding in the pipeline, numerous homeless people were told to move on from the area.
True to form, Pier Pressure raised over £600 for the Windsor Homeless Society, which they donated at the game, before unfurling a flag saying ‘Less royal wedding, more homeless bedding’. It really is more than just a game.
Of all the characters amassing in the terraces, decked in blue and yellow clothing of some description, one stands out more than most. The Mancunian accent piercing through the Southern parlance. Matt, a Manchester City fan hereditarily, has been frequenting the Saffrons for the last two years, and has no intention of swapping it for the Etihad anytime soon:
“My family are still season tickets at the Etihad now, but I feel football has been priced so offensively now that I would struggle to go every week even if we played round the corner, because of the prices.
“Whereas here this is more of the football I grew to love, City back in the day we were a disaster of a team but going to places like Walsall, Bournemouth or Blackpool. This was the sort of football we had, but on a bigger scale.
“I have more of an affinity for that Manchester City than I do this one.”
It’s that last sentence that sums it up more than anything, the slow death that Premier League football is dying. The truth that for many football fans, there is much more to the game than glory and success. It’s the camaraderie, the social gathering, the tradition, much of which has been drained as quick as the pitches at the Emirates or Etihad do these days.
Once again, Matt encapsulates it perfectly: “Even though there isn’t a roof on the stadium, even though there isn’t seats, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the culture.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Non-league football is enjoying a revolution, with fans grasping their power like never before. Enjoying the freedom they can enjoy on the terraces at this level. And if you are going to enjoy it anywhere, the Pier Pressure party is a great place to start.