Tuesday 31 March 2020

The English Game (Netflix) - Review

Football is in its infancy, an amateur game dominated by the upper class teams who invented its rules.

Arthur Kinnaird, the captain of the Old Etonians, has played in more FA Cup Finals than any other player, and won the cup three times.

Until 1879, no working class team had ever reached the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup.

And so begins The English Game, Netflix’s historical drama on the early days of association football and how it moved from the public schools to bfellecome ‘the working class game’ it has been perceived to be ever since. Developed by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), the six-part series places its focus on two figures at opposite ends of the social scale; the aforementioned (future Lord) Kinnaird and Fergus Suter; a Scottish player who moves south in the pursuit of fortune.

After codifying a set of rules from the various forms of football played throughout the country, the Football Association quickly recognised that their game needed a ‘Challenge Cup’ to take place for its members. Initially featuring alumni from public schools, the FA Cup opened up to include teams from working class towns and cities to broaden the game’s appeal. Competing was difficult for the working class, however – as their players had shift work for 6 days-a-week, travelling south to meet these well-honed Gentlemen and beat them in a match was a difficult prospect. Then local business owners hit upon the idea of compensating their players for loss time so they could take time off work to practice – something that the Gentlemen objected to, and quickly outlawed the practice…

The story initially focuses on Suter's move to the Lancashire mill town of Darwen, and the football team's Quarter-Final clash against Kinnaird's Old Etonians. Later, the series charts Suter's move to Darwen's rivals 'Blackburn' (a composite team of Blackburn Rovers and Blackburn Olympic) – bringing into focus the growing professionalism in the game and the northern clubs' ambition to establish themselves as leaders on the pitch.

Although the series plays fast-and-loose with some historical facts (more about this is an upcoming blog post), the detail in which they go to present a genuine 19th century spectacle should be admired. Aside from things like the costumes and social etiquette being portrayed to a tee (again, no surprise, what with it involving Julian Fellowes), they didn’t compromise anything to present a realistic portrayal of what the play would have looked like. I particularly enjoyed a reference to Arthur Kinnaird’s ‘handstand’ goal celebration – which I saw at the National Football Museum recently.

Kinnaird (played by Edward Holcroft) is arguably the main driver of the story as his outlook on life changes from someone willing to gain an advantage any way he can, to someone who is willing to lose if it means to play fair – as a proper Gentlemen should. Conversely, Suter (Kevin Guthrie) is the working class hero that seems to be more of a Gentleman – despite him wrestling with guilt at being a professional footballer, whilst his Darwen teammates get nothing. The rest of the plot features Kinnaird and his wife’s attempts to have children, Suter’s REAL reason for moving south, his relationships with the locals, the labour conditions of the era and the attitude of the upper class towards their game being uspured by the working class.

As for the play presented in the series, the most successful tactics of the time seemed to involve a ‘kick and crowd’ style – reminiscent of what rugby union came to be. Working class teams tended to play the ‘combination game’ (a major reason being that they were not as ‘conditioned’ to play the same way as upper class teams was because they couldn’t train anywhere near as much. So the passing lets the ball do the running, solidifying football as a quick, fast-moving, exciting game to watch). This was explained well in the series, as the attitude towards the play of the working class was summed up by one of the Old Etonians who said “All that absurd passing, it’s nonsense”. How times change!

A major criticism I have of the series is that it leant too much on placing upper class characters as villains. Whilst I do not doubt that many of them did hold the attitude that was shown, I doubt that it would have been as widespread as it seemed to be. Another aspect that needed focusing on was the businessmen who bankrolled these teams – they’re portrayed as benevolent champions of the working class when in reality, it was a means to generate money (for most of them).  Having an upper class vs. working class conflict, with clear positions defined on both sides, just feels a bit cartoonish.

Another issue that I’d like to pick up on is a plot point involving Suter’s reason for moving away from Glasgow to make his money – it has no basis in reality and simply acts as a motivation for his character. Even though these events happened some 140 years ago, it felt somewhat disrespectful to (potentially) besmirch the name of a real, historical family just to give a character some depth.

Overall, The English Game is a decent-enough binge-watch but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity to explore the social impact of the game in the depth that it deserves. It feels very-much like a cut-and-shut of the intricacies of early football and the domestics of Downton Abbey – and it could have easily done without the latter. Concentrating solely on the football would have made for a great vehicle for a feature film and I hope one day that we get to see something like it.

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Things That Amateur Footballers Experience

Amateur football is the lifeblood of the game. Whilst the professionals play for the glory, the money and the rest of trappings that follow, we have to pay subs just to be booted around a waterlogged pitch.

Nevertheless, despite amateur football seeming like a futile activity for many of us, it actually helps to incubate our love of the game; growing teamwork, friendships and sometimes, just sometimes, memories of fleeting great play that puts us on a par with the professionals for a spilt-second.

So no matter if you’re a seasoned veteran of the Saturday/Sunday (or whatever day) League football, or you’re new to the game; a wide-eyed youth with plenty of years ahead, here are some things that you will (probably) have or will experience:
  1. Many teams will have a BIG LAD who takes all of the free-kicks, corners and penalties. Nobody else. Just the BIG LAD. (And woe betide anyone who gets in his way).
  2. There will be someone who thinks they are the lovechild of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Trying outrageous kicks, tricks and flicks until they’re scythed down by the aforementioned BIG LAD.
  3. There will always be some granddad playing who thinks he’s rolling back the years by playing with youngsters, but just looks weird in a tight-fitting shirt.
  4. The granddad will still be better at football than you.
  5. Many of the players will be playing under a name that isn’t their own.
  6. ‘Medical/Physio facilities’ will consist of a bucket of water and if you’re lucky, a bottle of supermarket own-brand deep heat.
  7. People drinking cans and having cigs at the side of the pitch. (As do the players at half-time).
  8. Dogs will run onto the pitch.
  9. The pitch will always be waterlogged in parts, no matter the time of year.
  10. Not all players on the team will have matching shirts.
  11. If you’re lucky enough to get a matching shirt, it will be caked in mud from previous games.
  12. Two footed tackles not only happen, but are actively encouraged.
  13. The referee will rarely break into a sprint.
  14. Great goalkeepers are rare.
  15. The goalkeeper will often change with an outfield player.
  16. The goalkeeper will often go up for a corner/take a free-kick/penalty, regardless if their team is losing by a single goal or ten.
  17. Managers fall into two camps: they will either think they are Pep Guardiola and will constantly bark out incomprehensible instructions or not be bothered and instead, will be indulging in the aforementioned cans and cigs.
  18. The Pep wannabes and those who aren’t bothered will be connected by their formation of choice: 4-4-2.
  19. A warm-up will consist of booting the ball as hard as you can towards the goal.
  20. You look forward to an away game – especially if it’s at ‘your ground’ (as you won’t have to put up the nets).
  21. When you do have to put up the nets, the lack of a stepladder will mean jumping on someone’s shoulders to get the top of the net in place.
  22. The referee will swear, swig and smoke just as much as the players do.
Those were my top things you will have (probably) experienced in amateur football. Got any of your own? Leave them in the comments below or Tweet @pints_pies.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Ashton Town vs. Holker Old Boys

I think it speaks volumes about the renitence of our country that football games have only been suspended in times of war – indeed, the First World War was a year-old before the football season was halted. As football is engrained in our culture, it was used to act as a vessel of our defiance; no, we will not be cowed and change our way of life for you.

Whilst we’re not at war with any other nation today (thankfully), we are ‘at war’ with something else – the COVID-19 virus. This new infectious disease has wreaked havoc around the world, putting a stop to public events – including, as of yesterday, all professional football in Britain.

Faced with nothing to do of a weekend, many of us are lost. So I decided to play it safe; instead of fighting people for the last pack of bog roll in the supermarket, I instead made the 20-minute bus journey to Ashton-in-Makerfield to see Ashton Town take on Holker Old Boys in the North West Counties League Division One North.

Now, let’s get one thing clear here – I fully support the decision to suspend professional matches. Whilst I suspect that the decision was sealed when several players and coaches got infected (or went into isolation), you can’t really deal with a pandemic by having tens of thousands of people gather in one place, all over the country. The people most at risk are the elderly or those with pre-existing illnesses (a bit like seasonal flu – but it isn’t flu, it’s more aggressive, and there’s no vaccine), so it’s only right that we take measures to protect the most vulnerable – but whilst we need to take it seriously, we need to be calm too.

My issue is that people are panicking without due cause (it’s not like the Second World War when the prospect of a bomb dropping on your house was real) – the aforementioned fighting-for-bog-roll isn’t a joke, it’s actually happening. Exacerbated by the instant communications we have these days, people are being somewhat hysterical – even if they ever have a right to be, causing panic will only make things worse, leading to rash decisions that sees them bulk buy groceries or worse, put people in danger because of pure selfishness. What’s that war motto (that people/companies have ripped off to use as memes) – Keep Calm and Carry On? I’m even gladder that we aren’t at war with anyone but a virus right now!

I wanted to see a match today, as I don’t know whether any non-league games will be on in the next few weeks/months – a few I had eyed up last night were called off this morning after clubs had spoken with each other about the situation. Ashton Town happens to be the most local non-league side to me, so I thought about it – and then they offered Wigan Athletic season ticket holders free entry. I was on that bus faster than The Vengaboys.

If I were to speculate (always say that when you suspect you might be incorrect) – one of the reasons that this particular game wasn’t called off was due to the journey the away side were making – located in Barrow-in-Furness some 90 miles away, it’s not really a midweek trip a team of footballers (on expenses) would want to make after a day at work.

The decision from the Premier League and EFL to suspend their fixtures until next month was designed to cut down on mass gatherings – something that you don’t get in non-league football (bar the odd club in The National League). Interestingly, having their turnstiles open today will be of benefit for many these clubs; there are plenty of supporters without an EFL or Premier League team to watch, so they're looking around for games to go to – swelling the gates.

Today’s match will be the first time that I’ve been to their Edge Green Street ground to see Ashton Town – I’ve been there in previous years to see several Wigan Athletic Charity games (including last May’s against a Bryan Robson XI), but never to see the club itself (to my shame). Currently, they’re just outside the promotion places in the First Division North – a great start to the season was interrupted by postponements, squad turnover and naturally, poor results. Their town rivals, Ashton Athletic (whose home game was one of the postponements today), are currently in a similar position in the division above – and whilst I wish both teams every success, the panic buyer in me wants to see an Ashton derby at some point. Next season’s Wigan Cup, perhaps?

With their involvement with the Latics Charity games (which raise money for Josephs Goal), the club’s community involvement reflects the character of their committee. Chairman, Mark Hayes, is particularly active in the local area and just seems to *get* what a football club is and what it should be doing for people. His day job is being the landlord of The Gerard Arms in St. Helens (but let’s not hold that against him!), and in recent weeks has started an initiative to get people talking by simply opening up a table in the pub for a chat.

No booking required, no airs and graces, just turn up at table 12 for a chat with a friendly face. Whilst, in his own words, not a qualified counsellor, Mark understands that people just often need someone else to talk to – we all have problems, some of us suffer worse than others, many have a support network, and some of us don’t. As a pub landlord and non-league football club chairman, seeing and meeting the range of people he does, I’d say he’s well qualified to be a good listener! Often, it’s that chat, kinship and guidance that people need to feel better or take action to safeguard their mental health – something we’re going to need more of in weeks to come (if all these virus predictions happen!)

An Ashton Town Association Football Club existed as early as 1903, joining the Second Division of the Lancashire Combination. Despite winning promotion in their first season and stabilising at the level above, the club struggled to fulfil fixtures towards the end of the 1910-11 season and withdrew from the league. In 1953, Makerfield Mill FC (Makerfield being the area that Ashton is historically a part of – hence the suffix), were formed, originally playing in the Wigan Sunday School League, before spells in leagues in St. Helens and Warrington.

Having been forced to move from their home at Windsor Road in 1962 because of land development, the club sort to shape a tangible future – renaming themselves as ‘Ashton Town AFC’ and playing at a number of grounds (fields, basically) in the area before purchasing a plot of land off Edge Green Street in 1964. Five years later, World Cup winner and Liverpool forward, Roger Hunt, opened the clubhouse and a decade after that, the (present) changing rooms were built – giving the club the means to establish themselves in non-league football.

The motto of the club is ‘Onwards and Upwards’ – and there’s a real ambition to progress on a couple of levels. Despite being founder members of the North West Counties League, Ashton Town haven’t progressed beyond it; indeed, both Ashton clubs have seen another local rival, Atherton Collieries, progress to the Northern Premier League’s Premier Division in recent years (a promotion away from the National League North, for those who don’t know). Their success just goes to show that with robust organisation, a philosophy (both on and off the pitch), a dedicated volunteer base and a good community reach, what clubs can achieve at this level.

Edge Green Street is quite a large ground for a step 6 club; hidden behind housing (just a minute’s walk from the bus stop – press the bell when you turn the corner after ‘Ashton Carpets’), its official capacity is just over 2000, but the space behind one of the goals (acting as a grassy car park) and the left-side of the ground is quite substantial.  My mind races with ideas about a Saudi billionaire taking over the club and developing the ground into something like Accrington’s Crown Ground or Fleetwood’s Highbury Stadium. It would establish them as a proper local rival for Wigan Athletic; giving the fans somebody else to send nonsensical internet abuse too, instead of Wigan rugby fans. (Actually, thinking about what I've just said, it seems I may have the virus, after all!)

On approach to the turnstile, I spot a notice stuck to side about the Coronavirus; advising us on best practices. I’m one of those who thinks it’s odd that we need to be told how to wash our hands properly – having been in many Gents toilets over the years (no, not like that), I can tell you now (Ladies), that the majority of them do not wash their hands (I do, by the way). It's basic cleanliness – no wonder viruses are running riot.

I hummed and hawed about presenting my season ticket – whilst it’s certainly kind of the club to offer the deal, I wouldn’t have minded paying the fiver entry fee to support them. So I get a programme, raffle ticket and a couple of pints instead (clearly, the idea behind the offer!) The clubhouse is pure non-league; furniture and carpets that suggests they were bought second-hand from a working mens club, husky chatter from the patrons about anything other than football, a television showing the English Badminton Championships, multipack cans poured into plastic glasses – I didn’t even mind that there was no poncy beer on sale.

I take my (now, usual) spot on the left side of the pitch, taking a seat in the stand as it started to rain as soon as the match kicked off. Both sides make a good start, as both have Periods of Possession (POP), without much in the way of a clear-cut chance in the first 20-minutes or so. There seems to be quite a few on – crowds here average around 50-70, and there must be double that on today. I can even see a couple of fellow Latics supporters (we don’t all know each other, contrary to popular belief, I just saw a few with club gear on!)

After the balanced start, Ashton begin to take a hold of the game and they have a great chance to take the lead when an attacker runs through on goal, rounds the keeper, but he takes himself too wide and so by the time his resulting shot is aimed at goal, a defender gets back to clear off the line. No matter, they take the lead a few minutes later – and it’s a cracker (in the words of Frank Carson); a well-worked move from a throw down the right (my left) sees Jack McConville get clear of his markers, to the edge of the area before curling the ball inside the near post.

The goal leads to a period of Ashton dominance; Holker’s keeper has to pull off two great saves low down to keep it at 1-0. I make a dash for the bar just before half-time which took me around his goal – his side give away a free-kick and he doesn’t seem best pleased with his side, let’s just say that. He was bollocking them.

The half-time beer (can of Carling – don’t judge me. They didn’t have any Leffe) allows me to witness the raffle draw take place. Sadly, my ticket is 13 numbers away from the first prize when a lad sat on the nearest table to me draws it out. Then, to my excitement, the lady offers her raffle cup to me to draw out the second prize – here’s my chance. I ended up drawing a ticket 20 numbers away – no raffle whiskey for me to keep Covid-19 at bay!

Smarting from my defeat in the raffle, I return to my seat (it was still raining) for the second half, a few minutes into it. My arse wasn’t on the faded red seat for a minute when some controversy occurred – Holker are awarded a penalty when their forward is hacked down in the area. However, there are howls of derision from most inside Edge Green Street – pointing out that the linesman had flagged for offside. The ref goes to talk to his assistant and after a minute, proceeds to award the pen – much to the chagrin of those around me.

As the green-shirted Holker man steps up to take it, a lone shout of ‘SHIT’ was aired just as he struck the ball – and the keeper saves! The Ashton custodian, Chris Cheetham, was named in the programme as the NWCFL Division One North ‘Goalkeeper of the Month’ for December (showing how few games have been played recently!) – although it wasn’t a great penalty by any means, he still did well to dive the right way and hold onto the ball. So was justice done with the miss or was another crime committed by one of the spectators? I’m not getting involved!

The game grows more ‘industrial’ in action and language – a lad in a Latics hat near me (who, all game, has been dying to get a hold of the ball so he can throw it back), was giggling at the words ‘fucking hell’ that was uttered by a player when the ref ignored his pleas for a free-kick. I overheard his dad tell him ‘this is proper football’ earlier; with the pitch threatening to turn into a mudbath and players swearing at each other within earshot, it certainly takes me back. Thankfully, the lad got his opportunity to fag the ball and chuck it to a player – big smile on his face. Somehow, I don’t think he’ll forget a moment like that.

Despite some huffing and puffing from Holker (their best chance of the second half being a shot that went just wide), Ashton hold out for the three points. A cracking game on an otherwise odd occasion – when football does resume, I want to make a point of visiting more – I’ve no excuse really, what with it being 20 minutes away. Since the sad demise of Wigan Robin Park, they’re my ‘local’ non-league team, after all.

On the bus back into the centre of Ashton (it's only a mile away, but it's STILL pissing down!), I encounter the lady who won the 2nd prize that I drew for in the raffle. Jealously raged as I saw she was clutching her family tub of Quality Street, tightly. I've no chance of getting one. I console myself by alighting at The Twisted Vine alehouse to sink a few beers. Highly recommended if you’re ever in the area, it’s simply a great microbar – it has the usual tight surroundings, forcing people, who don’t know each other, to chat. There’s (of course) a plethora of ales on tap, as well as bottles as part of a 'beer library' too. As soon as I open the door, two dogs nearly knock me over. What a pub – you can’t whack welcomes like that. It’s easy to see why it is 2019’s CAMRA Wigan pub of the year.

So all that’s left to say is Keep Calm and Carry On. Look after those people around you and for heaven’s sake, don’t bulk buy things from the supermarket – spread your shopping trips out so you leave stuff for others (especially if it’s beer – we need something to get us through with no football being on). 

Ashton Town 1
(McConville, 27) 

Holker Old Boys 0

Attendance: 121