An Afternoon at Basingstoke Town!
Posted on November 4, 2014
There was a time when a professional football match at Reading was a place for oddballs. Everywhere you looked there would be harmless social inadequates, 40 year old men who still lived with their mum’s and nicotine stained old boys who hadn’t missed a game since they were six.
Over the years as a new stadium was built, commercial avenues opened and with players starting to come from all over Europe and beyond, the necessity for the marketing men to maximise revenue became more and more apparent. This meant that these traditional old school fans were increasingly pushed out of sight, a bit like wounded soldiers hidden at the back of a navy ship at a homecoming celebration.
When you attach yourself to a football team there is no going back, you are stuck with them for life, so despite keg bitter in plastic beakers, ‘Pie and a Pint Deals’ for eight quid, demands to hold up a piece of card saying ‘Bring It On’ as a show of support for our American players and worst of all, a season ticket next to a woman with earphones who would jump up and down shouting when Liverpool had scored, I kept going.
Of course, sanitised stadiums are not all bad as they allowed me to introduce my children to football in relative safety, whereas their immune system would not have been able to cope with the South Bank stand at Elm Park, a place where going for a pee carried the risk of hepatitis or typhoid. I heard that someone actually had a poo in the terrifying looking cubicle once, however, it must have been an urban myth surely? Just seeing a vision of that blue rickety door in my minds eye still makes me shudder with fear.
You didn’t need Immodium plus back then as the mere thought of opening that door could constipate a man who had spent the previous evening devouring ten pints of bitter and a laxative based vindaloo.
Eventually, the ageing cynic in me finally burst through the barricades of loyalty last season and despite still holding a season ticket, I stopped going to Reading, along with many of my friends who were also abandoning ship. This was partly due to poor results but mainly because it was becoming an increasingly pointless experience where you felt more and more like a customer to be exploited rather than a fan to be catered for.
The smell of burgers and onions was replaced by the perpetual reek of boardroom bullshit.
To be fair, it isn’t just at Reading this is happening, it is all across the higher echelons of the game, with fans of Premier League clubs getting blitzed out of the market by the middle classes who have become attracted to the game but lack the partisan behaviour that creates a vibrant atmosphere. All around the top flight, players and managers are bemoaning the lack of atmosphere required to spur their teams on in adversity with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho being the latest to speak out.
Sorry chaps but that is what you get if you have a stadium full of Daily Mail readers. You can’t have it both ways, the marketing men have to pay your salaries somehow. They need spenders, not noisy 19 year old’s who are on or near the minimum wage.
So, on Saturday, four of us went to watch Basingstoke Town, our very local team who are currently sat at the top of the Conference South. It was here when it dawned on me where all the traditional supporters had ended up…at non-league football, a place that is affordable and you feel wanted.
Basingstoke Town: A Classic Non-League Venue
As soon as we walked in to the bar I could feel that community spirit that had gone from Reading the day they had to desert a dilapidated Elm Park. A psychologist will probably be able to tell you how sense of smell operates the nostalgic area of our brains, and you will know what I mean when I say it was one of those moments where an aroma had my mind rolling back the years to another era.
I will call it the Saturday afternoon smell. Beer, musky body odour, cheap burgers sizzling on a hot plate, tea in polystyrene cups, boiled onions, it was all there drifting into the cool Autumn air. I felt like I had drifted back to 1982 and I loved it.
The weird loyal supporters were there too, a noticeable amount still adorning replica coats or shirts of the teams they used to love and still support because if you are a football supporter, you cannot change fully, it is worse than cheating on your partner. Reading, Tottenham, West Ham and Chelsea clothing was there in abundance but so were the Basingstoke scarves and shirts.
The semi-autistic types were there too, counting the corners, shots on target, fouls, bookings, thrown-ins and free kicks…football is dream to those who still love collecting statistics like we all did when we were boys, before growing out of it from about fifteen onwards. I met one chap who told me that we (Basingstoke) had only beaten Chelmsford once in the last ten encounters before telling me all the results, the goal scorers and the weather conditions on the day.
Okay, so he was a bit weird and I probably wouldn’t employ him as a baby sitter but I have to say it was preferable to having a conversation with some wannabe middle class buffoon who pops along to a game as a two hour distraction from his day to day consumerist addiction and one-upmanship over his friends who don’t seem to ask him out so much these days.
My new friend just wanted someone to show off his knowledge to and I was a happy victim before leaving him to his burger that he pulled out of the his inside of his jacket, leaving me assuming that he must have purchased it before the queues formed and tucked under his armpit to keep it warm. You don’t get supporters like that at Premier League games any more, they are either at non-league games or SKY TV has had them all executed as they are bad for business.
Basingstoke Town football ground is about as traditionally non-league as it gets, surrounded by a working class housing estate on one side and ring road and a retail park on the other. Unless you were brought up in Beirut, there is no way you could say it was attractive, but I thought it was great being surrounded by people who know their football rather than those who thought it was invented by SKY in 1992.
Everyone, the groundsman, bar staff, burger bar staff, the players and of course, the supporters, are all their for the love of the club, making sure it survives and everyone is given the best value that is affordable. It was such a heart-warming experience and one I could easily get addicted to, especially as I have, in recent years, fallen out of love with the beautiful game.
When the last Government came in to power, their crass strap-line was “We’re All in it Together'” with reference to the economy. The majority of us knew it was lies from plastic people who, ultimately, were all in it for themselves and sadly, that greed is reflected in Premier League football where only new money is allowed whilst the traditional working class eccentrics are asked to go and play hide and seek on a motorway.
At Basingstoke and no doubt other non -league “We are all in it Together'” feels a bit more genuine.
Get yourself down to your local club, it’s a little bit basic, a little bit run down and a little bit weird, but I guarantee you will get addicted.