“Is it normally like this?” I asked. Were all of these people really perfectly willing to give up every Saturday afternoon to stand awash in a re-purposed driving range? “No.” Was the reply I got. “It’s usually busier, but the traffic’s bad today.”
I don’t think anybody means to fall in love. I certainly didn’t. For a twenty-year-old born into a family of Mancunians, this should have been the antithesis of footballing beauty; a Frankensteins’s monster of metal, concrete and grass. But it wasn’t. It was everything I’d hoped for. For the first time I felt like I was more than just an attendance figure, that we were more than just an attendance figure, nestled into each corner of this surreal landscape. Our surreal landscape.
I’m no stranger to football. I’ve seen Messi run riot at Old Trafford and Ronaldo glide past defenders like a high-street shopper avoiding Greenpeace volunteers, but only as a bystander, a pedestrian. Never did I truly feel like the thousands of people around me were anything more than tourists, caring less about the score line than their own saturated Instagram feed. That’s probably a bit unfair, I assume a majority of those thousands of onlookers likely show the same level of dedication as the few hundred I could see dotted around a rain-soaked Damson Park, trotting out win or lose to watch a club they’ve supported since boyhood. But even still, the sense of community I’ve since discovered at the Moors was non-existent, killed off by the wasting disease slowly creeping into the game.
It’s almost cliche to drone on about the state of modern football, but the symptoms of the sickness are there. It’s a game where Manchester United need an official Japanese soup partner, and Liverpool a skin-care sponsor, a game where every possible association, however tenuous, is snatched with both hands and milked dry. Often it seems like league clubs are so desperate to latch on to whatever is profitable, that the football becomes a sideshow, a bit of entertainment to turn your head to whilst you’re busy shopping.
At university, when asked who I supported, I’ve often responded Moors first, then Villa. Usually the reply is the same – “who?” or “why?”, as if such a pursuit isn’t worthwhile unless it can be measured in finals watched on TV, or the number of international fan club branches opened. Moors are still a young club, with an emerging and evolving identity, a growing history which I’m proud to be a part of. That I’m lucky to feel a part of. You can keep your Champions League final; I’d rather be in the stands, watching my club labour to a defeat in the Vanarama National. Sure, success can be measured in TV deals or silverware, but it can also be measured by a growing community of fans who wake up aching to get to the ground.
That’s not to say that the club is completely perfect, it must be remembered that each club is a business entity with duties and responsibilities to those than run it. They must deliver a profit. Hell, I’ve been to Villa games for cheaper than I have to Moors, but only at the latter did I genuinely feel my presence was known, and that I was there as a fan, not just a consumer (the money raised is put back into the club and the community). I could shout gentle words of encouragement or make my anger known, and the players would hear it, in both a figurative and metaphorical sense. There were no overpriced, artisan, gluten-free pies or official matchday crisps, just the fans, the team, and a 5p bag of sweetie mice, served by a genuinely lovely tuck shop team.
That’s the sort of football I want. The sort of story my granddad would tell me as a kid, of the people that made the club, the fans that felt as a part of it all as the players, players playing for a genuine love of the game.
To paraphrase Milton, whose title I bastardized for this article:
‘The world was all before them, where to choose? Damson Park, on a freezing, wet Saturday night.’