Sean Clancy and the romance of non-league football
Far afield from the glitz and glamour of his sister’s celebrity lifestyle, Sean Clancy, brother of tabloid darling Abbey, walks gingerly on to a grassy stretch just off the A45 in the West Midlands. Why is the Desperate Scousewive screen star here? His passion for football of course.
The tie: Solihull Moors vs. Chester FC. The venue: Damson Park, a stone’s throw from Birmingham International airport. The attendance: 564. Will Peter Crouch’s brother-in-law merit the respect of today’s opponents Solihull? Think again. Five minutes in and Sean is subjected to a shinpad-splintering collision with Moor’s roving wing back Andre Francis. Welcome ladies and gentleman, to the beauty of sixth tier English football.
Two weeks previously and the location is Court Place Farm where 1,025 have gathered to watch Oxford City play host to Chester in a Blue Square Conference North curtain-raiser. At 3 o’clock, as the 40,000-a-week Tottenham Hotspur star Luka Modric sulks at home over the stalling of his ‘dream move’ to Real Madrid, 22 players take to the grandest stage of all in Oxfordshire – the lower echelons of the English divisions. Referee’s whistles blow in tandem and league campaigns begin across the country. The buzz is tangible. Where else would you rather be?
Certain aspects of non-league football are so romantic they pull at your heart strings – the proximity to the pitch for example. I recall being at Burton Albion some years ago watching player-manager Nigel Clough, now Derby County boss, take a corner from barely a yard in front of me. You could practically sniff under his armpits.
The passion of the supporters is another facet. At Gigg Lane on a sub-zero evening in December 2010, 7,000 were crammed in to bellow on FC United of Manchester in a second round FA Cup replay against Brighton. Red flares were lit by lunatics and nostalgic Busby songs were sung as the anti-Glazer Man Utd breakaway club were roared on in the frenzied backdrop.
The stadiums are a further magical feature. The formula for non-league stands is standard: cement blocks, corrugated iron roofing and standing space. Cow sheds, in short. Seating is restricted to five or ten rows at most in the ‘Main’ Stand. Over the years I’ve been to Nuneaton Borough, Hinckley United and Kettering Town on toe-tappingly cold occasions and in baking heat. The rule is simple – fend for yourself! No prisoners are taken in these arenas. Amphitheatres for non-league gladiators.
The players though are the heroes of the game, just like the volunteers who ‘made’ the Olympics and are currently ‘making’ the Paralympic Games. This is a breed of footballer who for three days a week might be found squatting in a pensioner’s kitchen, repairing the plumbing. This is a breed of footballer who dives only into a swimming pool on a weekend away at Butlins with the family. This is a breed of footballer who loves his sport so much he is willing to shed blood and sweat for his club in receipt of a few hundred pounds per appearance.
At this level of football the good-old fashioned slide tackle is still a legal manoeuvre. At this level the grass on the pitch is real and inches long, unlike the snooker baize surfaces of the Premier League. At this level I’ve witnessed refereeing decisions visibly influenced by baritone hecklers in the stands.
“I want to travel the world and drive my Lamborghini care free in the sunshine” reads Sean Clancy’s blurb on the Desperate Scousewives’ C4 programme website. Not today Sean, your team needs you fighting for the cause in Solihull. The loyal band of Chester followers are sent into delirium after eight minutes when bull-built striker Nathan Jarman replicates a Paolo Di Canio scissor kick from 20 yards to put the Seals ahead. Chester then showcase their brand of Conference North joga bonito (“the beautiful game”), caressing the Fila football around the park like Spaniards in tika-taka mode. Their lead is deservedly doubled on the stroke of half-time; on-loan Macclesfield striker Ben Mills thumping a header beyond home goalie Jasbir Singh, before peeling away with a ‘Millsbot’ celebration to rival Mo Farah’s.
Half-time refreshments at the Damson consist of tea or Bovril served in polystyrene beakers coupled with a Kit Kat Chunky for a grand sum of 90 pence, served with aplomb at a hut labelled loudly and proudly “Tuck Shop”.
Possession football is absent from the second forty five minutes as the game turns into a circus show of comedy backpasses, head tennis, ricochets and phases of pinball in both boxes. Ironic cheers greet an attempted double stepover by Moor’s electric-paced forward Omar Bogle. Flair players rarely prosper in these divisions. “Who’s marking Linford Christie?” quips a man to my right, insistent on providing a running commentary.
Clancy’s game ends in late substitution and an ovation. No Fancy Dan antics from Sean today but a solid showing. A late header adds gloss to the Chester victory. Three-nil, job well done. Their bandwagon is well and truly rolling: five wins from five, joint top. The team bus will return home in a buoyant mood.
Non-league football is in rude health. Roll on Brackley Town away on 8th December.Tagged in: Abbey Clancy, Desperate Scousewive, Peter Crouch, Sean Clancy
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