This past Sunday (June 11th) saw the greatest achievement in English football for 51 years. The Under-20s won their World Cup in South Korea, beating such senior giants as Argentina and Italy, but also less renowned countries like Guinea and Venezuela on the way. Talk (prematurely of course) is now whether they can go on and do the same for the senior team in Qatar 2022. The team is made up of players on the books of top Premier League clubs, but hardly any have played more than a handful of games for the first team. They play their games at lower league grounds, such as Oldham and Rochdale, which I think is good, as it brings international level games to a wider audience and at lower prices.
Football, as we have seen previously on this site with Rishi Dastidar’s poem, “We are Premier League”, is dominated by big money, whether it be players’ wages, ticket prices, or television rights and subscriptions. But as with many sports, top success is underpinned by the misnomer of non-league football, which itself starts with youth leagues, where parents volunteer for the child’s team as manager, trainer, team secretary, running the line, or putting up the nets (the latter two were my job, and at 5ft 7in, the crossbar was out of reach).
Support for their local teams is part and parcel of this territory. It is there that I go by the ‘blighted by birth or where you live’ rule when it comes to supporting a team – there is no pick and mix (I was born in Coventry for the sins of my parents). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t contradict that rule by making your children support the god forsaken team you were born from.
Ben Banyard’s poem ‘This is Not Your Beautiful Game’ nicely captures the reality and sometime excitement of such wind-blown support, “This is not Wembley or the Emirates./We’re broken cement terraces, rusting corrugated sheds,/remnants of barbed wire, crackling tannoy.” You don’t get prawn sandwiches here (not that you would want them), it’s “pies described only as ‘meat’,/cups of Bovril, instant coffee, stewed tea.” But out of such masochistic adversity, comes great strength, as well as pride. “Little boys who support our club learn early/how to handle defeat and disappointment…./We are the English dream, the proud underdog/twitching hind legs in its sleep.” It is never too late for some players’ dreams; many have risen out of the lower ranks, to play in the Premier League, like Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin, Jimmy Bullard, Troy Deeney, and Jamie Vardy. And of course not forgetting Coventry’s own Trevor Peake, who at the age of 26 was bought from Lincoln City and was part of the 1987 FA Cup winning side.
[NB: for one time only, I am allowing a Birmingham fan to grace the pitch of Proletarian Poetry. There are times (and poetry is one of them), when the game must trump the tribalism – aka pride before a fall. But don’t tell any Cov fans]
Ben Banyard grew up in Solihull but has lived in the West Country since the mid-90s. His poems have appeared widely in the likes of The Interpreter’s House, And Other Poems, Under the Radar and Popshot. Ben’s pamphlet, Communing, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2016 and his first full collection, We Are All Lucky, is due out from the same press in 2018. He edits Clear Poetry and blogs at https://benbanyard.wordpress.com
This is Not Your Beautiful Game
This is not Lionel Messi, balletic, mercurial.
We have a journeyman striker with a broken nose
no pace, poor finishing, very right-footed.
This is not Wembley or the Emirates.
We’re broken cement terraces, rusting corrugated sheds,
remnants of barbed wire, crackling tannoy.
Here, the captain winning the toss
chooses to kick uphill or down
considers which half his keeper will stand in mud.
We have pies described only as ‘meat’,
cups of Bovril, instant coffee, stewed tea.
Our shirts feature the logo of a local scaffolding firm,
can’t be found in JD Sports.
Don’t tell us about football’s grass roots.
We don’t worry that all of this must seem small-fry,
that our team comprises keen kids and sore old pros.
Little boys who support our club learn early
how to handle defeat and disappointment,
won’t ever see us on Match of the Day.
We are the English dream, the proud underdog
twitching hind legs in its sleep,
tapping in a last-minute equaliser as the rain
knifes down on tonight’s attendance: 1,026 souls.