As I cleared the spam box of drivel about colon cleansing, quack weight loss treatments and fake designer handbags, it dawned on me that our own Pete Sixsmith isn’t the only Sunderland fan with a strong, occasionally stronger (like last night, when he gave Colchester a miss) attachment to non-league footie. Stephen “FTM” Thompson*, the latest contributor to our occasional “Another Team” series, accepted my invitation to share his love of Histon with fellow SAFC supporters …
“Look at that twat in the Sunderland top. I bet he’s never been to a Histon or Sunderland match in his life.”
That was one of the comments I read on an online message forum following Histon’s famous FA Cup victory over Leeds United** two years ago.
In truth I had been attending all Histon’s home games plus many away games for five years previously. I wore the stripes to win a bet on whether I could get featured on live TV. I had also previously owned a season ticket at Sunderland for 10 years.
I grew up near Chester-le-Street in the pre-Keegan days, before football had ‘been invented’ at St James’ Park (as it was known back then). In those days the locality was evenly split 50:50 between Mackems and Mags.
This was the time before Sky TV and the soon-to-be plastic mag fans had not yet made it out in their hordes to buy their replica jerseys. My school was also split evenly between red & white and black & white. My particular crowd of friends started attending the matches at Roker Park in the 1980s so it was only natural that I went along with them. I absolutely loved it, my first match being towards the end of Sunderland’s lowest point – in the old Division Three. Since then I did not miss a home match for almost ten years.
Then I moved out of the area, as many people do, to secure employment. Following a six year stay in sunny Kent I eventually found myself living in the flat Fenlands of Cambridgeshire. Friendly people, decent pubs, a relative abundance of jobs and almost-affordable housing. I made as many Sunderland matches as I possibly could, both home and away. There were many people in the same boat it appeared as I frequently bumped into exiles. The Blackcats email list and the Ready To Go website forum were useful tools for arranging meet-ups at away matches. But I was desperately missing football on my doorstep. Somewhere I could visit to watch a game, have a few beers and be back for tea. Histon fitted the bill perfectly.
I have always felt strongly that geography should be the only factor when determining which football team you follow. It is so common to see some idiot walking down the street wearing a Manchester United shirt and you know that he has probably never been within one hundred miles of Manchester. So I did sort of understand the sentiments expressed about me wearing my Sunderland top at the Histon match, although this is a good opportunity to set the record straight.
Sunderland have never in my lifetime been either remotely fashionable or any good. We flirted with the top ten of The Premiership a few years back just as Peter Reid was reaching the upper limits of his ability as a football manager. Since then we have won the second flight trophy several times as we have bounced up and down between the leagues. If it had been a Chelsea or Man Utd top that I had worn to the FA Cup game I might have understood the complaints. However this was Sunderland – why would anybody wear a Sunderland top unless they supported and loved the club?
I played football in the village of Histon and I frequented the pubs. Histon FC were then a couple of leagues below the BSP where they will currently fight for their survival this season.
Back then one Steve Fallon was in charge of ‘The Stutes”, with his assistant manager John Beck. I went along to watch a game with a mate from 5-a-side.This is what I had been missing, local football.
And it was “real” football. None of this over-paid, long-haired, diving prima donna rubbish that we see in The Premiership. All of the Histon players had full-time jobs. There were roofers, van drivers and postmen in the team and football was their love not their treasure chest. This was reflected in the games.
Diving and cheating was practically unheard of. Competitive yes, dishonest certainly not. Money has not (yet) ruined the sport at this level like it has done at the top level.
The beautiful game is still a sport not a business at non-league level. I absolutely loved it and became hooked. I bought a season ticket for my local club and couldn’t wait to attend each home match, also taking in several away matches along the say.
It was great to chat to players and manager after the game over a beer, at the away matches especially. I got to know all of the players and staff at the club personally, I sponsored the shirt of one of the players, I ran the Histon Fans’ football team and I even started a web-based fanzine. I was frequently asked to appear on the local radio and wrote a column for the local newspaper. I was in my element – local football – that’s what it is all about.
Histon have now reached the crest of their wave. When a football club is doing well it so often happens that once they stop improving and producing the results they can quickly sink like a stone.
The previous directors have made an utter hash of the finances and as a consequence the club’s future is uncertain. There are rumours of administration and all but two of last year’s squad were forced out to pastures new to save on precious funds. The manager has also left the club, dismissed by an inexperienced and gung-ho new chairman (who himself is now no longer at Histon).
The club will almost certainly be relegated from the Blue Square Premier league at the end of the 2010/11 season. You know what? I don’t care. The club’s natural level with its small fan base and lack of funds is probably a league or two below the BSP. I will still go along to watch my local team play.
I will still wear my Sunderland top and I will still attend as many Sunderland matches as I possibly can. It is still my dream to watch the two clubs play each other.
Just like Andy Dufresne kept writing to the prison governer I have written to Sir Niall of Quinn at the start of each season asking him to consider a game down here in Cambridgeshire as he arranges the following year’s pre-season friendlies. Maybe one year he will pop down. It is near Newmarket after all.
If only everybody supported their local team, whether that is Sunderland or Newcastle, Farsley Celtic or Histon, Lewes or Brighton then the finances of football would be in a far better state.
Currently the marketing of Sky TV ensures that the majority of the money finds its way to the top. People claim to be fans of the top three teams and sit in their armchairs wearing replica jerseys. The top-flight players soak up the riches and spend the working man’s hard-earned in champagne bars. The England team with its bunch of over-hyped losers crashes out of the World Cup. Meanwhile the cash-starved clubs of the lower leagues struggle to survive with several going out of business each year. It is absolutely obscene.
So I will continue to explain to the people of Cambs what FTM actually stands for, just as I will explain to the people of the North East what FGH stands for. I shall also continue to support and enjoy local football, while proudly wearing my red and white stripes.
* Stephen Thompson edits the Histon Fanzine which can be found by clicking here
** Histon and Sunderland fans may be more tempted than followers of Leeds United to refresh their memories of Histon 1 Leeds 0