In England, football is almost a religion.
My parents weren't much into God and I was only baptised as a formality. I never understood the belief in a higher being, and I'm pretty sure the root of that lies in my unwillingness to accept that I may not be in control of my life. By the age of 18 I was starting to form biased opinions in my head. How could I agree with what I couldn't understand?
Four years on from that, I cannot believe or forgive my naïvety. Ever since I was embraced by the 2002 FIFA World Cup at the age of 9, I have slapped and shoved my faith into a spherical ball of leather as it is slammed around a park for nearly two hours. Of course, I wasn't alone. I discovered Aston Villa and Bayern Munich. I discovered the tragedies of Hillsborough and Heysel. I discovered Gazza's tears and Valderrama's haircut. I swore upon FIFA 03 and built my church upon Football Manager 2006 - and I was not alone. I went to church with thousands of others and we sang the same hymns and wept the same tears and lived through the same joy.
As with religion, I learned more about football and drove myself to find the roots of this divine game. It didn't always revolve around results or goals. It was simply a chance to spectate the young men who chose to represent their homes, their corner of the earth. We lost that. Something took it from us or we decided to forget. It was only when I was reminded of the chance to visit a non-league team by a now-yearly event that I became fully aware of the journey I could take. My trip to the Paget Rangers did not disappoint.
Community spirit should be the heart of football and 20 minutes from my doorstep in Boldmere I found that spirit in spades.
It cost an inoffensive £1 to enter the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground, where the Rangers ground-share with Boldmere St Michaels FC (You want a small-community tied-to-your-roots story? My Dad tiled the toilet floors at the stadium. How's that for a connection?) and upon entering, I was blown away by the normality inside the stadium. There cannot have been more than 100 people, 100 friends gathered around a small corner of the ground, communing around three small picnic benches as well as an elongated terrace. A small hole-in-the-wall shot out discounted snacks to hungry fans, whilst the pub that the ground was seemingly built around served the thirsty ones. It was so far removed from my experience of Premier League football that I started to feel increasingly uneasy, as if I had accidentally walked onto the stage whilst the actors were neck-deep in their performance.
As for the actual football on display? It wasn't too shabby. The gulf of footballing talent in England is strange, with the Premier League firmly rooted at the top and the Championship close behind: but once you hit League One, it all collapses together and things start to change. League One represents the pinnacle of what I would name 'Normal Football' and the talent gap at the bottom is considerably closer in comparison to the gap between League One and the Premier League. When you delve below League One, you start to realise that nine out of ten clubs are playing a similar style of direct football and fitness and individual player ability reigns supreme.
With that line of thinking, Paget Rangers vs Knowle FC was all-action. The ball was never in one space for too long as each team travelled towards the opposition's goal. Spectacular saves and speculative shots were the order of the day, corners were almost never on target and every player attempted in their own way to make the match his own. It was incredibly different to what we experience in the Premier League, which itself is far more tactical and team-based.
Paget lost by three goals to one, but I enjoyed the loss far more than I expected to. With every single Aston Villa loss comes a crushing disappointment, during which, for a brief moment, you believe that only a anti-depression capsule can bring you out of the low. I can only guess that the elation I felt in Paget's loss came from my belief that the players had given it their all. You simply can't get by in the Premier League by 'giving it your all', you'll get burnt out by December and your battered team will be at the mercy of the footballing gods following the hectic Christmas period. At the non-league level, every single team plays at full tilt until the game is over - the issue of energy conservation for cup or continental competitions simply doesn't exist.
The atmosphere at the game was surreal. I felt entirely as though I was watching someone's mates play football as friends and parents shouted at their colleagues, children and companions. Every single fan pretty much knew the players on a first name basis. Children joined in the pre-game and half-time warmups and played alongside the pitch as the match went on. When Paget scored their only goal in the dying moments of the match, the entire ground applauded.
Even though the concept of Non-League Day had enticed me to visit the Paget Rangers on this occasion, I was disappointed by the lack of support from the Villa fansphere. It seemed that every single blog or site was going loony over promoting the Rangers, but when it came to walking-the-walk (so to speak), I doubt anyone who got decidedly loudmouthed about the relevance of this day to smaller football clubs actually went down to the Trevor Brown Memorial Ground. It was kind of heartbreaking in all honesty, as so many football fans are with the 'down with modern football movement' in spirit, but when the opportunity is presented to take genuine action and support 'real football' for £1 - next to no-one showed up. In that very sense, the whole argument that money 'ruined the game' is thrown directly out of the nearest window. Money didn't ruin the game - it just made it a lot more expensive.
A direct retort to 'modern football' would have been to support the Paget Rangers for £1. Now I will likely laugh in the face of anyone who brings up the 'money' argument as we all had a chance to get our arses into gear by getting down to our local football team for two hours and to be frank - not many people did. Think strongly the next time you may want to criticise the state of football, folks! Obviously, this isn't an argument to critique the pseudo-hipster proto-football fans who long to bounce a stick of pyro off of Brad Guzan's head or to have a pop at those who protest day-in & day-out against the state of football right now, but it is interesting to reflect upon the fact that nowadays, when everyone has a soapbox to stand upon, the difference between the weight of an action taken and the emptiness of speaking about an action you may take is clearer than the difference between day and night.
I'm grateful I took the chance to see non-league football in person for the first time, but one of the main points that I took from that day was that the age-old proverb 'actions speak louder than words' rings true in almost every single instance of our lives. My eyes have been opened to the cult spirit that still exists and football as it once was, will always be available to you - right on your very doorstep. If football is your religion remember that religion likely feels most at home in your small hometown church. A service in a cathedral like Villa Park and Old Trafford is an awe-inspiring affair, but it never feels quite as "right" as one in the little church down the lane that you grew up going to.
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