By Jason McKeown
Some 650 million people around the world are set to tune into this evening’s Premier League clash between Manchester City and Manchester United (a record for a regular season sports game), but some 125 miles to the North East, a few hundred supporters will gather for their own eagerly anticipated title decider.
Spennymoor Town FC, of the Northern Premier League, entertain Dunston UTS FC this evening knowing victory will seal the championship for the third year in a row (the Moors choosing not to take the promotion that goes with it). They play in the ninth tier of English football – that’s five divisions below Bradford City – and their game tonight is just as important to the people involved in it compared to whatever happens at Eastlands.
While City were losing to Cheltenham Town on Saturday, I was at the Brewery Field – home of Spennymoor – with one of my best friends Simon. Having grown up in the area but moved to Yorkshire for the best part of a decade, Simon is now back in the North East and re-connecting with the local non-league team he grew up watching every so often. But there’s something significant about attending the Spenny match this evening for him, beyond the prospect of celebrating a title triumph – he is a Manchester United supporter, who will not be watching Sky’s Monday Night Football.
The connotations of hearing that someone is a Man U fan are obvious: glory supporter, in it for the trophies. Yet Simon has actually supported the Red Devils since the mid-80s, and attended plenty of matches before the name of Eric Cantona was ever heard in this country, or a first title in 26 years was lifted. Through all the time that I have known him, Simon has been hugely passionate about United. Watching games on TV with him can be fun but also scary, given he is likely to smash up furniture (once when I was with him he punched a banister, which broke it) in frustration if things go wrong.
Yet while Simon is not what you’d call a plastic Manchester United supporter, he also struggles to gain credibility amongst his own. A few years ago he watched the Champions League final at a United supporter event in Manchester, close by Old Trafford. But his North East accent quickly told his fellow drinkers that he was not a Mancunian, and Simon was told by fellow supporters that he was not a proper United fan because “only people from Manchester should support United”.
“People who don’t support Manchester United call me a glory supporter, people who do support United say I’m not a proper fan,” Simon often moans to me. And it hurts him that – after almost 30 years supporting a football club – he is shunned or judged.
At Spennymoor there is no such snobbishness. On Saturday he was clearly living the football experience he had talked and dreamed of fulfilling for much of his life. We rocked up at the supporters’ club bar an hour before kick off, with Simon knowing everyone within it. Long conversations about recent results; about how nervous they all felt over what was an important game in the title race; about who might be in the starting eleven today (the number 9 is crap apparently). It is enjoyable to be inside their bubble, hearing types of conversations you and I have about City inside our own, larger bubble.
The game kicks off and we are stood behind the goal they are attacking – one of the joys of non-league is you can still switch ends at half time. Spennymoor start the game slowly but look far more threatening when they do go forward, compared to their mid-table opponents Billingham Synthonia. The small but vocal hardcore of home supporters break into chants and keep turning to each other to talk about how nervous they are. Their main rivals for promotion, West Auckland Town, are also in action and many people are anxiously waiting for score updates via Twitter, which they can pass on to everyone else.
Watching this game is more enjoyable than I expected – though you’re not going to get patronising clichés from me about the standard of football being surprisingly high and not being much different than City. The standard is notably lower, of course it is; but it’s still an engaging football match with familiar patterns of exciting spells and quiet moments where neither midfield can get on top. Some passes are well-judged, others are misplaced; most defending is solid, but occasionally tackles are mis-timed; players argue with the ref. It is football as we all know and love it, and you can see why it matters so much to the people present.
In no time at all, Spenny race into a 2-0 lead. First a penalty that Billingham daftly concede, and then a comical own goal. The rest of the game is played out in comfort, but drama continues with Twitter updates spreading around the ground that West Auckland are losing – prompting outbreaks of loud cheering, the meaning of which the players clearly pick up on. The backing that the team receives in terms of non-stop chanting puts many of us Football League supporters to shame. Jubilation is high and the good spirits continue in the supporters’ bar after, especially when it is confirmed West Auckland have lost 3-1 (though the good spirits don’t last for me when I see the City result).
What I love about the day is being right inside the heart of this community, thanks to Simon and the people he knows. As a community it is much smaller than the Bradford City one that we are all a part of, but this mirror vision helps you appreciate what we share with them.
I love Bradford City. I love being a Bradford City supporter, and I love being part of the Bradford City community. I love that I have a small group of friends who feel the same way. I love the people who I talk to in pubs before City matches; I love the people I sit near to in the Kop (even if the Hanson haters drive me mad). I love going to away games and recognising the same people who also travel up and down the country watching the Bantams – for some reason I never see these familiar faces at home games. I love producing a website about my community, and that some people within the community read and enjoy it.
I was in Simon’s position once (and I’ve written a book about it, if you’re interested). So I know exactly why he was so happy at jumping up and down celebrating Spennymoor’s goals, chanting at the top of his head and wearing a permanent smile that lasted well into the evening (admittedly aided by several drinks). A year ago it would be unthinkable that Simon would miss any Manchester United game on TV – never mind tonight’s epic clash. But what he might experience tonight at Spennymoor will mean far more to him.
Tonight’s Manchester derby is very exciting. I will certainly be watching it, glued to my TV and hoping to see something truly memorable. But as great as it will be, I – and we – know full well that football in the Premier League is not the be all and end all, and that there are thousands of communities like Bradford City and Spennymoor Town, where the importance of what we go through is just as big and meaningful.
I’m pleased that Simon has finally found that too. And, as we drove back to his house last night, he said of the Moors, “You’re part of something special. You belong.” At the end of yet another disappointing season for City, we should at least remember how good it is to feel the same way about our club.