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[Blog] The Soul of Suffolk Football?
Written by TimS on Monday, 26th Jul 2010 10:02

Tim Sansom reviews a book which changed his mind about local football.

Matt Smith (2010) The Real Tractor Boys Playing Away - Blackline Press

Even though I live some distance away from Suffolk, I sometimes like to listen to BBC Radio Suffolk to catch some Town chat and speculation. Like the sound of birds in Christchurch Park, the chimes of the boat rigging in the Wet Dock or a green bus backfiring out of Tower Ramparts, the Friday evening matchday preview is a little sound of home. You can try to support a Midlands team to be like a local but there is only one team that you really care about.

You may be surprised to hear that the Midlands inexplicably (?) fails to discuss Town matters on their local radio and TV. I do not mind listening to discussion about Leicester City, Derby or Northampton Town but I do value the chance to listen to a bit of Town chat between people who do seem to care about the club. This is my club. If I am in the right mood, I can listen to endless debate, because it is about Ipswich Town Football Club. That is all that matters.

But all good things come to the end on the programme and I have never understood why the discussion always moves on to discuss the fortunes of Lowestoft Town, AFC Sudbury and Bury Town. I have often been left to wonder who is interested in these teams. Is this just a case of the BBC satisfying a public service remit? Can I have another half an hour discussion about whether Town will play two up front against Barnsley or whether last Tuesday’s win against Watford means that Town have finally turned the corner? I was not interested in whether Ipswich Wanderers were going to finally win a game, or whether Mr X was the new manager of Cornard United.

With these bad memories still in my mind, I was not sure what to make of Matt Smith’s follow-up book about Suffolk’s non-league football scene. In his previous book, Smith had visited Haverhill Rovers, Hadleigh United and the rest of the clubs at their home base. For his follow up tome, he is going away from home and his travels take him to places like Billericay, Gorleston, Diss, Ely and Godmanchester. You get to know that Bedford has a football team, and there are proud squads in St Ives, St Neots and Saffron Walden. There is a whole football galaxy out there and not that far from Portman Road, and I never really appreciated it.

Smith is a Man City fan for his sins, and he suggests that this non-league odyssey was to stop him from watching the anguish of his team (although I do not think that they had such a bad season in 09/10). Regardless of the reasons for the tour, he really does know his local non-league and his love and knowledge is a strong feature of this engaging book. On many occasions, you really do feel that you are sitting in those stands that often resemble nothing more than windswept bus stops. You are sharing in the often quirky, yet strongly community-focused atmosphere of these non-league football clubs. Smith writes in a very vivid style that is not always evident in books of this nature.

If you thought that top flight football lost its soul to the financial demi-gods, it is refreshing to read about football that is rooted in the soul of the local neighbourhood. And the non-league scene is struggling. Smith’s visit to Harwich and Parkeston occurs before the club resigns from the Ridgeons League. The trip to King’s Lynn Reserves is made with a month to spare before King’s Lynn FC was officially wound up due to an unpaid tax bill.

There are some success stories. Lowestoft Town are noted for their enthusiastic (and considerable by non-league terms) support and Histon is visited when the club is still on a year-long high after that memorable FA Cup showdown against Leeds United.

Smith has done a comprehensive rating system of each ground that he visited, and the book also includes a review of each matchday programme. A similar survey should be done about the quality of programmes in the higher leagues. If you want to visit New Lodge (Billericay,) or Emerald Park (Gorleston,) The Glass World Stadium (Histon,) or The Hawthorns (Stanway), you have the details to complete such a trip in this book.

But should you go? Until I read this book, I wouldn’t have bothered but this book and certain other things have changed my mind to a certain extent. It is nearly a month since the England team trudged back to Heathrow after a miserable campaign World Cup in South Africa with accusations ringing in their ears that they did not care about the national team or the nation. I am watching a Premiership where at the end of July, I can make a realistic stab at who will be at the top of the table at the end of the season.

I am watching a Championship where despite the gush that it is “fabulously unpredictable,” I can make an educated guess about who will be there or thereabouts at the top of the table. I am convinced that there is a group of football fans in this green and pleasant land who believe that football began in 1992 and there is only one league that is played in England (and it is not League Two or even the Championship.)

In his description about his day at Godmanchester Rovers, Smith mentions that Darren Bent used to play for the Cambridgeshire side before being snapped up by Town. That fact jumped out of the page and told me that talent does originate from these sides. These teams are not Sunday morning pub outfits having a kick around in the name of their village or town. Smith has reminded us about an important side of football that needs to be preserved for the sake of the long-term interest of the game.

Maybe the existence of these sides is more important than another radio debate about Town.

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soupytwist added 15:14 - Jul 26
My cousin manages a Suffolk non league side and I've made three trips to the Hawthorns to watch them play. It's interesting to see what aspects of non league football are common to the higher leagues (e.g. relentless criticism of the officials by fans, an unnecessarily loud PA system in Stanway's case) and which are not (the mixing of supporters and players in the clubhouse afterwards, the slightly less than nutritionally valuable post match meal). Sounds like a good book for those who want a different perspective on a Saturday afternoon's entertainment.

Dalty added 18:18 - Aug 4
Great review, sounds like a good read. In my school days a friend of the family was Felixstowe Town manager and I have fond memories of travelling round far-flung parts of East Anglia to some of the grounds mentioned. Though I'll always be an Ipswich fan above all, because I can't get to many games due to living in Manchester, I also started following Glossop North End a couple of years back. The review articulates a lot of the things that attract me to non-league, a place where the players often grow up in the same town as the team they play for, where it doesn't blow a huge hole in your wages to get to a game, where you can feel closer to the heartbeat of a club. Don't get me wrong, I want Ipswich to be as successful as possible, but I'll always enjoy the delights non-league football can offer as well.

Back_The_Boss added 16:56 - Aug 16
Good blog, I went through a lot of those moments as well.
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