A few weeks ago we examined the ‘earthiness’ of non-league football and questioned whether it was losing just a hint of its shine. As the prices of Premier League tickets show no sign of dropping anytime soon, it stands to reason that fans of top-flight sides desperate for their fix of live football will look for outlets separate from first choice teams. This, in turn, leads to the complexity of attending matches as a neutral.
The neutral spectator of a football game is a weird specimen – not quite involved in proceedings, but not quite on the outside – and is somehow to be both pitied and envied at the same time. After all, goes one train of thought, why attend a game in the flesh if you have no personal investment or even interest in the outcome? The cost of even attending a Level five or six game these days runs to a basic ₤20 once ticket, programme and pie have been taken into account, so why layout such sums merely to ‘take in a game’?
Of course, there is an opposite way of thinking. This is the one that the true footballing addict uses (for example) to justify the expense to his (or her) spouse whilst arranging family vacations from Indonesia to England in the depths of winter rather than the warmer climates of summer. This line of argument goes that any live football is better than none.
As hinted at above, I am in the midst of planning our family holiday back to England this Christmas. Some of our plans are still up in the air though, because although fixture lists have been released, Premier League matches (and even some of those further down the ladder) are subject to change because of TV scheduling. This means I am still nailing down dates and possible fixtures, and at the time of writing, it is unlikely I will get to see my beloved Liverpool in live-action although a trip to the London Stadium on the weekend of December 21 remains a possibility.
Other than this one remote possibility though, I am condemned to a schedule of going to matches as a neutral.
This will invariably include sides situated locally to my family whom I will be visiting in Essex. On the horizon are trips to watch National League South sides Braintree Town and Chelmsford City, along with possibly Ipswich Town and maybe Colchester United.
As a kid growing up, these were the grounds I visited more often than others due to not having the financial wherewithal or parental permission to travel much further afar and so I perhaps developed a slight affinity for these teams without really feeling any distinct or lasting affection for them.
At that point in my life, it was all about the match-going ambience and experiencing the thrill of going to games on my own for the first time. There was the feeling of enjoying the games for what they were without investing too much of myself into them.
I would often watch the antics of those in the crowd around me as much as I did the action on the field. To tell the truth, these reactions were more often than not more entertaining than the fare being offered up on the pitch.
Back in the early 1980s, Colchester United used to play a lot if not most of their home league games on a Friday evening and I attended a reasonable number of games at their old Layer Road ground in the company of Colchester supporting school friends.
Amongst the 2- 3,000 or so hardy souls in home attendance would invariably be the ‘boo-boys’. The contingent for whom nothing was ever good enough and having paid their 3 quid entrance fee, they would seemingly spend the entirety of the game haranguing whichever poor soul of a player happened to be closest to them at the time.
If memory serves, Colchester had Roger Osborne amongst their ranks at the time. In 1978 he had made history by scoring the only goal in Ipswich’s famed FA Cup Final victory at Wembley and yet here he was just a few years later the target of vitriol from the sprinkling of Colchester United die-hards. A young Perry Groves was just beginning to make his way in football at the time and I recall some of the wise old sages on the terraces voicing their doubts that he would have much of a future in the game.
Whilst the majority of home supporters would go home after the match with their weekend either set up nicely or off to a bad start depending on the result, my thoughts would invariably be elsewhere. As a neutral, I wanted to see an entertaining game with, hopefully, a few goals. I would want Colchester to win – for the sake of my mates more than anything else – and if they did, then all well and good, but I would rather witness a 4-3 away victory than a 1-0 home success.
Ipswich was another ground I visited semi-regularly in the company of more emotionally-charged mates at the time. This was in around 1983 – 85, just after the Bobby Robson era. Ipswich had declined rapidly from their glory days under Sir Bob, and just a couple of years after successive runners-up finishes were by then struggling against relegation.
Gallows humour was in strong evidence at some of the games I remember attending in the winter of 1984 with a particularly abject home performance against Southampton lingering long in the memory. Ipswich at the time had Paul Cooper in goal who had been a very fine keeper and only the abundance of talent England had between the sticks at the time in the shape of Ray Clemence, Peter Shilton and others prevented him from being capped.
However, on this cold and frosty February evening fans turning up to Portman Road were greeted with the news that he had suffered from a last-minute injury and so would be replaced for the evening by 5ft 8inches reserve goalkeeper Laurie Sivell.
Now, Sivell had spent 15 years or so at Portman Road without ever becoming the recognised number one and hadn’t made a single first-team appearance for quite some time. This was his chance. A good performance here, and who knows?
Southampton were going well in 1983-84 and would eventually finish league runners-up and losing FA Cup semi-finalists so nobody was expecting an easy game for the home side, but hopes were reasonably high of at least a point.
Twenty minutes in and the Saints had raced into a three-goal lead and the home crowd were laughing – yes, laughing – at their hapless goalkeeper.
Sivell’s lack of match practice was costly to the tune of not one, not two, but three absolute howlers in the opening quarter of the match that meant the game was over as a competitive fixture before it had hardly begun.
When the first shot squirmed under Sivell’s body to open the scoring, the crowd reaction had been mixed: there was a large sprinkling of frustration blended in with support and empathy for Sivell and his team-mates. The home crowd were down but not out – early days and all that.
The second blunder a few minutes or so later invoked no such mixed reactions, however. The crowd’s reaction was immediate and unequivocal – it was incandescent with rage. The game was slipping away, and although all was not lost yet Sivell and his mates had jolly well better pull their collective socks up pretty sharpish, matey, was the general consensus.
When poor old Laurie repeated his party trick of letting a thirty-yard daisy cutter through his legs for a third time half-way through the first half, the home crowd stopped raging at him and simply began laughing.
As Ipswich kicked off for the fourth time in the half, the ball was immediately played back to Terry Butcher, who decided it would be morale boosting for Laurie to be able to field a backpass and so gather the ball under no pressure. As Butcher slid the ball back twenty yards or so, the entire home crowd theatrically gasped, held its breath and comically voiced a long and drawn-out “whoooaaahhh”. As the hapless Sivell safely gathered up the ball, the crowd erupted in ironic applause and cheers.
These were followed by the sound of 15,000 or so people laughing.
The Portman Road faithful thus amused themselves by repeating this scenario every time Sivell touched the ball over the next 70 minutes. Needless to say, Laurie never played for Ipswich again and soon after moved into non-league football.
Other grounds I visited as a neutral as I got a bit older and started working in London were Upton Park and White Hart Lane. Here my memories are also mixed.
Having never had the pleasure of seeing Liam Brady play, I made a specific journey to East London to see one of the last games of the 1987 season when West Ham met Manchester United. In perhaps one of the most stultifying games the old Boylen Ground was ever misfortunate to play host to, it was all I could do to stop my eyes from bleeding as I looked down on a goalless draw from my ten quid seat in the old main stand.
That same season I went to watch West Ham play in a League Cup replay (remember them?) at White Hart Lane. This game I remember most pertinently as it was just a wing and a prayer away from a disaster unfolding two years before Hillsborough.
Not expecting a particularly big turn out, the powers that be had not decided to make the game all-ticket. They had also seriously under-estimated the size of West Ham’s travelling support that I elected to join so I could ‘sample the atmosphere’. The upshot of this lack of due diligence, along with some shocking policing, meant that some 10,000 West Ham fans were herded into an area designed for 7,000. It was a frightening experience, to say the least.
Anyway, although I have enjoyed the experience of going to ‘the match’ as a neutral, there is nothing that compares to the nerves and tremors of anticipation that accompany us when we enter a ground to watch ‘our team’.