Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

Cover image © Penguin/TfL.
The 2015/16 football season in the England was perhaps the perfect year for a reissue of this book. It was the year that, against all odds and logic, unfancied Leicester City went on to win the English Premier League – it was also the season my team, Aston Villa, got relegated but we won’t dwell on that.

Coupled to this, most football supporters love an underdog story and many would confess to having cheered on teams like Bradford in their cup victory over Chelsea in the early rounds of the FA Cup in 2015. Of course, provided it’s not our team on the receiving end of the giant killing, we don’t mind.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, published in 1975, is so much more than just a novella on an underdog team winning; it is also a much more interesting painting of rural society and how England was changing in the 1970s, seen through the eyes of J.L Carr.

The novella is narrated by Joe Gidner, a listless twenty-something who writes messages for the inside of greetings cards, rents a room in the schoolmaster Alex Slingsby's house and assists him in the care of his disabled wife. The only thing that seems to provide him with any sense of purpose is his role as the secretary of the local amateur football team.

The village is described as having a “popn 547, height above sea‑level in the Dry Season, 32 feet” which perhaps hints at some quite remote fenland location of Lincolnshire, although the exact location is never really revealed. The description of the wintry countryside adds to this sense of remoteness from the modern world: “Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.”

The storyline is peopled by an odd assortment of characters with a great selection of names, but all eminently believable for someone who has lived in the countryside. For example: Mr Fangfoss, a prosperous farmer and the chairman of the team by virtue of the fact that he is in charge of almost everything else; Dr Kossuth, an Hungarian émigré whose analytical mind is able to distil a system for winning games following a trip to Leicester City’s old home of Filbert Street; and Ginchy Trigger whose hyperbolic reportage on the team’s progress provides a verbose indication that football is actually involved in the story.

Armed with Dr Kossuth’s postulations on football, a couple of ex-pros (one of whom had a short stint at Aston Villa) and the vicar (amongst others), they take on a number of local teams before the bigger tasks of Leeds United and Manchester United as the rounds progress.
All this leads towards their unlikely victory against even unlikelier opponents Glasgow Rangers in the final – although strange, up to 1886/87 it wasn’t unusual for Scottish teams to appear in the FA Cup.

Along the way, some of the more telling moments occur that in many ways relate directly to the world as we know it now. The media scrum that descends on the village in the lead up to the final, making an instant celebrity of the polygamous Fangfoss because of his outrageously bigoted opinions, seems reminiscent of how the modern media love to pick up random members of the public, shove them mockingly in front of the camera before spitting them into oblivion again.

Following their team’s victory in the FA Cup Final, things seem to fall apart in the village. Some characters move on with life, others don't. Slingsby's wife dies and our narrator, who had finally built himself a sense of purpose, makes his move on Ginchy Trigger, only to find he’s missed his opportunity. Their moment in the sun over, there is no hope to relive those lost moments, and maybe they are best left as memories.

In many ways this is one of the saddest novellas I’ve ever read, but I would wholeheartedly recommend reading it. It is a tale full of truths and is a fitting tribute to those who grind away with amateur clubs in the quieter recesses of our nation.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Racing Club Warwick

Match ticket and programme for Racing Club Warwick.
I’ve been spending a little bit of time over the last couple of football seasons visiting a few grounds around the southeast of England. After a conversation with an old schoolmate, Bendz, I realised that it was time to go home.

I’d wanted to watch a cup match of some description for a while and identified the Saturday 10th September as the ideal time to visit Townsend Meadow – the home of Racing Club Warwick of the Midland Football League Division 1 (the 10th tier of English football's pyramid). Their match was agains Coventry United in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Vase, the amateur equivalent of the FA Cup.

After some conversation with my parents, who still live in my hometown Warwick, we established that the last time that I’d been to watch The Racers was back in the early nineties. They had been playing against a team in red, the name of which was long lost to both them and me. In fact, I was likely still attending first school at the time and it was probably the first live football match I had ever watched.

The timing of the match wasn’t great as the new academic had just begun and I had a million things to do for work, but, having planned it weeks in advance, I was actually quite excited to see where The Racers were at these days. I caught a Saturday morning train from Marylebone and arranged to meet Bendz in the early afternoon.

The journey from the endless rooftops of northwest London, through the deep emerald undulations of the Chilterns and Oxfordshire, into relative flat expanses of Warwickshire, was painted with the weather of the coming Autumn. The skies were grey and the train passed through many rain showers en route.

After a quick brunch at my parents’, Bendz and I walked up the path through Priory Park in search of a pre-match drink. Part-way down West Street, on our old route to Aylesford School, we found the gem that is The Old Post Office – possibly the cosiest pub in Warwick with a massive range of drinks on offer and a perfect shelter from the murky weather.

Racing Club Warwick started life in 1919 as Saltisford Rovers. They moved to their current ground in the 1960s and changed their name in 1970 to reflect their proximity to Warwick Racecourse. They joined the Midland Football Combination and were champions in 1988. By far their most famous former player is Ben Foster, the current West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper, who got his first professional contract with stoke in 2001 and has also played for Manchester United and England.

Upon reaching Townsend Meadow, we were uncertain of where the entrance was until we saw a small crowd of people near a new-looking pathway. Sure enough, the path led to a new turnstile shed.

“This is all new!” I exclaimed to the ticket-seller as I paid my £5 for entry and 50p for the programme.

A gentleman in a Racing Club Warwick polo shirt, standing the other side of the turnstile, replied, “well, if you think this is good, wait until you walk around the corner of this building.”

Sure enough, rounding what I think was the old changing room, the ground looked so much smarter and a new stand, complete with yellow and black seats and perplex dugouts, had been constructed in place of a much older stand.

“Well, this has changed!” I said.

“When were you last here?” the gentleman asked.

“My parents tell me about 20 years ago at least,” I replied, wondering whether the gentleman would see me as some sort of deserter for having left it so long. Then I remembered this was a community club where friendliness is key.

He went on to explain how a change in committee and some additional funding was the catalyst for the developments, which also included new changing facilities and a paved netball court near the entrance to the clubhouse.

We had just enough time before the start of the match to get a drink, check the team list displayed on the sandwich board outside the bar and head to the stands for kick-off.

Unfortunately for The Racers it started badly. We’d hardly sat down before Ben Mackey had slotted home a neat shot to make it 1-0 to Coventry United. He then went on to score twice again before half time, despite a few hopeful moments from The Racers.

Jordan McKenzie prepares to come on in place of Jamie Smith.
This was all too much for one old gentleman behind us who proceeded to provide a Midlands-accented commentary of doom and gloom. It was amusing to listen to and even funnier when his stock phrases (“don’t give it to him” and “oh, not him again”) preambled the run up to The Racers being awarded a penalty early in the second half.

Jamie Smith duly slotted the penalty home, but The Racers never looked close to closing the deficit further, even though they had a few more opportunities as time ran on. Coventry United, from the Midland Football League Premier Division (the 9th tier of English football) seemed to be in control over their rivals for most of the second half.

The skies were still darkening and the sizeable travelling support were getting reasonably vocal as few wayward challenges felled their players. Their invectives, though, were nothing compared to the bouts of swearing issued from the mouth of the Coventry United manager. Amusingly, he had most of his protestations shrugged off by the female referee's assistant on the nearside touchline. One wag in the stands reminded him that his team were winning 3-1 after all!

After a chat with the same gentleman from earlier, I found out that Mackey, the player who had seemingly destroyed The Racers singlehandedly, once played for them in the mid-noughties. The voice behind us in the stands could be heard saying, “well, for £300 a week he bloody should be scoring goals.”

The match ended in a 1-3 defeat for Racing Club Warwick and their potential journey to Wembley was derailed before it had even left the sidings.

The tiny stands on either side of the pitch emptied quickly following a round of applause for both teams. The main gate onto Hampton Road was swung open and we wandered back towards the town square.

Far from having a sense of disappointment, we felt like we'd stumbled on a lost gem in heading to Townsend Meadow – although Bendz seemed sad about not being able to buy a Racers scarf.

In an age of arrogant professionals and overpriced football matches, visiting Racing Club Warwick at the start of the 2016/17 season served to remind us what this game is really about: a sense of community spirit, underpinned by real supporters who genuinely love the sport. The Racers may be a long way off every emulating the likes of the Class of ‘92’s Salford City, but the spirit of the team and their supporters far surpasses many of their professional counterparts.

You can follow Racing Club Warwick's progress via Twitter on @RCWFC or online at http://www.rcwfc.co.uk/. For more about The Old Post Office pub, visit: @OldPOWarwick
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