I support Ely City. When people ask me why, I say; because I’m a glory-hunter.
No, it’s because they are only ten minutes down the road and I’ve lived in the Isle of Ely since I was an egg. As much as I love the game I can’t say I’d ever be the type to do those mammoth trips that you hear about on phone-in shows; you know the ones. They set off from Torquay on their bike on a Friday morning for a Blackburn home game and then get back on Monday night.
My interest is strictly local; the (Ridgeons) Eastern Counties League. I tend to get a bit claustrophobic at a ‘real’ match. If you went to Wembley for the friendly with Argentina a few years ago you might have seen me – I looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. Going to watch Kings Lynn is what I consider being in a big crowd. Part of the ‘fun’ of non-league football is the pain (and the solitude); the pain of freezing conditions. Let’s face it, we must all be mad. We’ll stand there for two hours in sub-zero temperatures yet won’t wait five minutes while our other halves dally outside a shop window. We’ve all been there; it’s the last minute of a vitally important game (East Anglian Cup 1st Round) and your side are 2-1 down. And then, just as the Siberian winds are about to freeze your grimace into a permanent feature, your top striker scores and extra time follows. Damn ! Although you’re frozen to the core and dreaming of getting home to snuggle up with the wife in front of the biscuits, you stay. Let’s face it; you might miss a goal.
At this point I must confess to being a bit of a Johnny come lately to non-league football. I haven’t spent thirty years man and boy standing frozen on the touchline, cheering on Ely City. I was absent for the first hundred years of the Robins existence. For the first few years I was a fair weather supporter; a good frost normally saw me off until the following Easter. It was a return to the game after suffering from burn out as a curly-haired youngster. After playing four games a week as a bushy tailed schoolboy for various teams, I had a couple of years watching Cambridge United on a regular basis. In fact, I was standing on the pitch next to Big Ron, marvelling at his gold bracelets, on the night that The U’s won promotion to the Third Division for the first time. Playing on Saturday’s then intervened as I gambolled up and down the wings of village pitches around Cambridgeshire. At this point my watching was confined to occasional visits to The Abbey or to Downham Road.
It does become a pain though; constantly having to explain why you prefer local football. In the course of my job I go off on training courses and the trendy thing to do is go around the room on the first day for a ‘meet and greet session’. As we go around the room it’s a stream of ; ‘Hello – my name’s Steve. I like DIY and sheds. I’ve three kids and I support Manchester United’. As the interrogation progresses around the room I await my turn. Then it’s ‘Hello I’m John – I hate DIY and I support Ely City‘. The dropped jaw reception to this news is the same as if I’d said I was an alcoholic. I then have to justify why I follow a side that play in a local league and brave their patronising smiles as I describe the attendances and the standard of play.
Why, I hear you ask, support a team so low down the pyramid that we can’t even see the top ? Is it the chance to sit on an Ipswich Town seat for £3.50 ? (we’ve bought two hundred of the old brown flip-up seats from the Blues). My reply would be: Why support anyone ? Old Trafford regulars would probably hold the view that it’s pointless supporting anyone else…you’re not going to win anything that matters are you ?
The football may not be pretty to watch a lot of the time but I defy anyone to question the professionalism and commitment of anyone involved in football at that level. Around eighty or so regulars turn out to watch The Robins as the Rugby Club grunt and grapple in the adjacent field and the distant Cathedral quietly flutters its ancient eyelids to attract passing tourists. There may be a lack of star names in the Ely team but in the last few years ex-pro’s such as Martin Hayes, Paul Allen, Gregg Downs, Dale Gordon, Robert Fleck, John Wark and Graham Kelly have shown up at The Unwin Ground.
Graham Kelly ! I hear you complain. Well, fair enough, but the ex- Big Cheese of the FA did pay a visit to The Fens to watch us in an FA Vase tie a few seasons ago. In fact, and I felt some grudging respect for him for this, it was the last match he watched before flying off to Italy for the World Cup Qualifier in Rome where we so heroically fought out that famous nil – nil draw. It did provide an illustration that the FA is still there for ALL clubs, not just the ones in the top four divisions. The other drawback with local football is that the air is normally thick with agricultural language. There was an incident one afternoon when a chap was swearing at the linesman and when he realised that my youngest was standing next to him he shouted at the lino again, ‘Now look what you’ve made me do – I’m swearing in front of children now!’
Although a staunch defender of the Eastern Counties League I can’t deny that we have our fair share of bizarre moments you wouldn’t get in the Premiership. During a particularly muddy match against March Town one of the opposition players sustained a nasty knee injury and the stretcher was called for. Now, the Ely stretcher had seen better days; it had M*A*S*H stencilled on the underside and was covered in blood – I think it was donated by RAF Lakenheath after the Vietnam War. Anyway, the stricken player was lowered gently onto the stretcher and Gary Grogan (the legend!) and Vinnie the Physio lifted him away from the muddy war zone. A loud crack rent the air as the handle broke and the injured player hit the ground with a ‘plop’ to the cheers and laughter of the assembled crowd. But it’s all good natured fun; the nearest thing to crowd violence I’ve seen at the Unwin Ground is when my two daughters got into a fight over ownership of a curly-wurly. So until a sugar-daddy decides to buy the club and merge us with Arsenal I’ll be happy to stand at the bottom of the pyramid and look up. After all, it’s the journey that’s important – not the destination.