Most saturday afternoons of my young adulthood were spent playing football at low amateur levels. Usually my sides were beaten, often embarrassed and sometimes utterly humiliated by teenagers half my age. On rare occasions my team won – there was one memorable cup final (we lost heroically), and one or two promotions. But I never played for any regularly winning, high achieving clubs.
Much like in my professional life, there’s a dim sense that maybe I could or should have achieved more, with a little more luck or self-belief. But that may be a delusion and one shared by many.
Nonetheless, those experiences mean a sentimental attachment to the lower rungs of the game. Amateur football culture endures in human memory every bit as much as professional football culture, and when it’s personal and shared between fewer people, it can mean even more. There’s a rugged romance about lower league and amateur football culture. No glamour and comfort here. No obscene wealth, no faintly ridiculous pantomime and playing to crowds.
It can be easy to forget that people pay money from their modest earnings to play football on patchy slanting pitches that may well be speckled with dog shit. People give up their time to coach, referee, organise and watch, to wash muddy stinking football kits. All largely for the love of it. And for those involved, it matters just as much as it does to anyone working at a professional level. Possibly more.
Village pitches across Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean were where I started out, playing in goal for St Briavels and conceding over 100 goals in one season but still winning players’ player of the season. (I like to think this wasn’t sarcastic). Then came the Mathematics team of Cardiff University’s ‘Intra Mural Games’ – not that I studied it, I hated maths. They were just better than the English Literature team. Then the Cardiff suburbs for spells with Heath Park United and Spencer’s Cobblers.
A move back over the Severn Bridge saw me turn out for Tewkesbury based Sunday workplace team Oberthur (not my own workplace) where I won another players’ player of the season award as the foolish mainstay of a leaky defence.
Then to one or two of the lower ranked 10ish sides run by large West London outfit Old Meadonians, near Chiswick. They had a great clubhouse on the River Thames, shared with a boathouse overlooking Barnes Bridge.
Into my early 30s, the 11-a-side playing days came to an end back on the sometimes frighteningly brutal parks of Cardiff with AC Central.
A sad truth is that people also pay money for the thrill of going out to kick people, fight people and harm people, all with relative impunity. I found this most common in Cardiff, where I certainly wouldn’t want to referee.
Photographing football at the lower rungs is a different creative challenge to photographing in professional grounds. You can get a more authentic sense of place, and space. There are clearer cleaner backgrounds, longer uninterrupted lines and more negative space to play with. It can be gentler on the eye as a result.
Partly inspired by rediscovering the brilliant photography shared by ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine, which documents remote outposts of football culture, last Saturday I took a short walk to my most local club, AFC Butetown. I’d seen an FAW piece about that weekend being the first qualifying round of the JD Welsh Cup. This is the Welsh FA Cup and allows amateur teams to compete for the chance to play larger clubs, with the ultimate winner achieving a place in the Europa League.
Afforded the time by a later Cardiff City kick-off, I went over to take in half an hour or so. The pitch lies in the shadow of the giant Butetown tower block of flats which can be seen for miles around and forms a community epicentre. I fondly remembered my one match playing here in the mid-noughties. We were missing our goalkeeper and I sulkily donned the gloves as punishment for a bad previous game, possibly an own-goal. I put in a Man of The Match performance and we won 3-0.
The AFC Butetown pitch and surrounding facilities appears to have developed over those ten years, but it still retains the same partisan local community feel, which could disconcert a visiting player not used to a crowd.
Despite only hanging around for about 15 minutes and making one circuit of the pitch, I managed to catch the opening two AFC Butetown goals, before they went on to win the match against Blaenrhondda 4-1, and progress to the second qualifying round of the JD Welsh Cup.
Best of luck to AFC Butetown in the next round.
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