Today’s behind closed-doors friendly at St George’s Park against Walsall is closely followed by City’s first public appearance(s) of the summer.
On Tuesday evening, while Alex Neil’s first-team squad are at Crown Meadow, Lowestoft for Micky Chapman’s testimonial, a ‘Norwich City XI’ will be kicking off against Dulwich Hamlet.
With this in mind ex-Norwich City and current Dulwich Hamlet season-ticket holder Andy Pearmain kindly offered us a preview, but not before a meander down memory lane and some musings on the nature of ‘football allegiance’.
It’s a funny thing, football allegiance. Growing up in the 1960s in Leeds, there was no question I would support Leeds United.
I spent most summer holidays kicking a ball around the car park at Elland Road, pausing only to ask for autographs from juniors and reserves as they scurried to their third-hand Cortinas and Capris (and yes I’m well aware that some MF-ing Writer will point out that those models weren’t made till the 1970s/’80s/ whenever, but you get my drift).
A half-decent player myself, I spent a couple of years in the ‘nursery team’, the equivalent of today’s academies, only to find out many years later the head coach was of questionable integrity.
It wasn’t difficult being a Leeds United supporter in those days, with lots of glory as well as last-gasp defeats. But it was about the only good thing going in a rapidly deindustrialising city where, as J.B. Priestley said about the whole north of England as long ago as the 1930s, there had never been much to do except hard work. I left as soon as I decently could, and my allegiance to Leeds United began to wane.
I went to university in Manchester, and tried out the local outfits. The United crowd always were a surly bunch, as much towards their own team as anybody else, and besides I still carried the prejudices from the bitter 1960s rivalry with Leeds.
I enjoyed watching City more, world-beaters one week and clowns the next, but I never developed any real affinity. Moving to north London in the eighties, I tried Arsenal and Tottenham, but they were hard to like. The fans especially were witless thugs (behind the ‘glamour’ many still are) and there was a deeply unpleasant sense of entitlement. If they weren’t winning – and I know this is rich coming from a Leeds fan – they were (and are) liable to turn nasty.
I’ve lived in Norwich since 1990, and right from the start attended four or five games a season at Carrow Road. My son was now old enough to take a serious interest, and the UEFA Cup home games were great fun. There was also, at least in those days, a refreshing sense of fair play.
My fondest memory is the 4-5 defeat to Southampton, a fantastic game including a Chris Sutton brace, when I heard an old guy say at the end “Never mind, they need the points more than we do.” Compare that to a more recent thrilling 4-5 home defeat, which was treated like Armageddon.
I made a point of watching the games against Leeds, finally recovering from the Revie hangover, but they never did well here. A 2-2 draw was as good as it got, with Gary Speed scoring both for Leeds. A 4-2 Norwich win was more typical, another Chris Sutton masterclass (my God he was a good player, even if he’s a moronic pundit). But still, as Leeds won the first Premier League in 1992 then later “lived the dream” with Peter Ridsdale, my original allegiance resurfaced.
By now of course, with the rampant commercialisation of the Premier League and the circus in the Sky, it was much more a matter of consumer choice than personal origins. I was always bemused by all those Liverpool ‘fans’ from Great Yarmouth, Surrey and such like.
The Leeds “dream” went sour, and ended up a nightmare under Massimo Cellino. I jumped ship when Ken Bates, a very English mafioso, took over, and I slowly began to take a closer interest in Norwich City. Enough at least to try to tell the score from the crowds coming past our house on Bracondale after a game (you can’t; win, lose or draw, Norfolkers are always glum).
When they slumped into League One, I sensed it might be fun watching ‘real’ football again, and started going regularly. The 1-7 Colchester game was actually hilarious, for a ‘blow-in’ like me at any rate, but when Paul Lambert came here it got seriously interesting. By this time I noticed a change in the mood of the crowd: more anger, more people who obviously hadn’t a clue about football but just wanted goals and wins, and reflected glory to ameliorate dull daily lives.
Even so, as the Lambert/ Holt ascendancy gathered pace, the football was enough to deflect my attention from the idiots I often found myself sitting next to.
The first Premier League season, by which time I’d become “a season ticket holder” (the modern token of football allegiance, with an illusion of ownership, though all you’re actually doing is handing over many hundreds of pounds to the club marketing department) was great, but of course that soon went sour too. Lambert was seduced by ‘big city’ Villa and then the chicken-tycoons at Blackburn (that ended well, didn’t it, Paul?).
By the end of Hughton’s first season, I’d had enough. The football of fear had taken over, with club earnings apparently as important as goals and points, and too many games a dull anxious grind. I’ve continued to take an interest – far too much time anxiously checking the score while out on long walks – but I can’t say my heart’s in it.
I’ve only actually watched one PL game in three seasons – a terrible 1-1 draw with an equally fearful Swansea, enlivened only by a wonder goal from the much underrated and ill-used Gary Hooper – but from a distance it hasn’t look like much fun. Those crowds trudging up King Street to the County Hall car park look more miserable than ever.
In the meantime, I’ve been following my older brother into watching non-League. Lowestoft Town to begin with, but that’s a pretty dreary experience by and large, not least because it involves going to Lowestoft, but there have been some good exciting games.
The most recent highlight was the visit of FC United of Manchester last autumn, who brought 500 fans and doubled the usual attendance. They sang (and drank) throughout the game – witty, mostly anti-Glazer chants and songs, and a banner proclaiming “Working Class Heroes” – as their lively young team ran riot against a jaded Lowestoft. It was the most simple fun I’ve had at a football match since I was ten and watching Leeds play their first games in Europe.
But the real fun’s come back to my football watching since I started going to see Dulwich Hamlet. My three grown-up children live (separately) within a mile of their ground at Champion Hill in south east London, so I can combine a game with seeing one or other or all of them, and even drag my son along if he’s not watching his beloved/resented Canaries.
I’ve even got myself a pink and blue scarf as a token of my transferred football allegiance, and headed off to several away games up this way, at Bury St. Edmunds, Leiston and Needham Market.
I realised early on – and this is a large part of the attraction for me – that the crowd might be unusually large for this level (1500 at home, and 50/100 at every away game) but they’re not that fussed about the result. So long as it’s a good game, and a pleasant outing with lots of alcohol and raucous singing, they seem happy anyway. And the hard-core boozers, otherwise known as ‘The Rabble’, don’t seem to take too close an interest in the football at all…
I was always told as I was growing up that losing is as much a part of football as winning – and when you think about it objectively, mathematically, of course it is – and that coping with defeat is a valuable lesson in life, perhaps the most valuable there is, because real life involves plenty of defeats. ‘Big football’ seems to have lost sight of that, with all the money and showbiz and contrived hysteria and hype. ‘Winner takes all’ is no fun if you’re mostly losing.
At the end of the recent Ryman Premier play-off final, when Dulwich got walloped at East Thurrock, the Thurrock fans were singing “We are going up, say we are going up!” The 500-plus Hamlet fans who’d trekked out to this particularly unlovely end of Essex joined in with “You are going up, say you are going up!” How cool is that?
So get yourself down to Champion Hill on the evening of 12th July, as the mighty Dulwich Hamlet take on a ‘Norwich City XI’ (presumably kids and cast-offs). You’ll need a bit of briefing beforehand:
– The “hipster” contingent: watching Dulwich Hamlet is seriously trendy, with lots of articles in the Guardian, and young men with beards and tight jeans pretending to be interested in football, and even a ‘transgender’ contingent among ‘The Rabble’. Don’t let that put you off. They’ll soon be moving out of London when Mummy and Daddy can no longer afford to subsidise their rents (probably to Norwich).
– The “yummy mummies”: Dulwich is seriously gentrified these days, kids get in free, so there’s lots of middle class families… and kids kicking footballs around at half-time, just like I did fifty years ago in the Leeds United car park.
– “Tuscany, Tuscany, we’re the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we play in Tuscany!” This chant is not some kind of middle class boast about favoured holiday destinations. It comes from the planning enquiry over the last ground development, when a local resident objected that removing a few trees meant that it would no longer look like Toscania. The rarity of Italian sunshine probably doesn’t help either.
– New ground: You might hear talk of a new 4000-capacity ground development. This will include transferring ownership of the club to the fans, so it’s a bloody good thing, the only long-term sustainable model of running a football club. Please support. FC United today, Dulwich Hamlet tomorrow, Norwich City some time?
– Politics: these are generally left wing football clubs, with allegiances to each other and lots of worthy causes: Refugees Welcome Here! Football against Fascism! If you’re not comfortable with a bit of Marxism and diversity at the football, go and watch Millwall or West Ham.
– Alcohol: non-league football is fuelled and part-funded by beer, so a large chunk of the crowd will be seriously pissed. But don’t worry, these are friendly drunks, not the nasty ones you get at ‘big football’. And of course, this being Dulwich Hamlet, it’s all craft ales to wash down the organic free-range burgers (vegetarian options available)…
– Price: as an over-60, I pay £64 for my season ticket, £2.50 per game, compared to the £815 I was paying for a posh seat watching 19 games of mostly torment at NCFC. With advance train tickets, my whole day out costs me less than half the cost of an afternoon or evening at Carrow Road – as a Yorkshireman these things matter – and at Dulwich I actually enjoy myself!
If you can’t make the trek to south London, maybe try Lowestoft, where Dulwich will be playing at Crown Meadow this season against the predictably relegated Trawlerboys. Even if it’s not much of a game, which is customary at this windswept wasteland, the crowd should be worth watching.
Andrew Pearmain is a historian, currently working on a short history of Situationism and a biography of Antonio Gramsci. His previous books include ‘The Politics of New Labour’, ‘Feelbad Britain’ and ‘Gramsci in Love’.