When my daughter was little, I took her to watch Marine AFC play. Thrilled by the revelation that it was socially acceptable to shout your head off on the terrace, she yelled: “Come on you football match!!” She never uttered a truer sentiment. For a few blissful moments the crowd behind her took up the chant. It was empowering.
And, Football Match did indeed come on. This Sunday, it’s Marine’s turn to embody the magic of the FA Cup when they play Spurs – currently something like 160 places ahead of them, the biggest discrepancy at this stage in the competition’s history. José Mourinho’s team will apparently be using the Arriva Suite – which we’ve hired for our kids’ 18th birthdays – as their changing room.
Sadly it will also be Marine’s turn to embody 2021. The biggest match the club has ever played will take place in front of no fans. I say no fans. In fact one side of the pitch is bordered by the back gardens of Rossett Road. Some residents are in the habit of watching the game from atop their garden walls or – in one case – their children’s slide, rather than walk round the corner to the turnstile.
Back in the heady days of Tier 2 there was a lot of banter about them renting out their back bedrooms on Airbnb – with uninterrupted pitch views – to Spurs supporters. One of my sons had booked himself a tip-toe speck on a Rossett Road toilet seat. Those dreams have now burst like pretty bubbles in the air.
Marine fans have to be made of stern stuff. “The game against Stalybridge,” says the club photographer Susan – AKA Mrs Marine – Nugent, “is annually scheduled for the wettest and coldest Tuesday night of the year. It’s often played without a shot on target.” She never misses it. When I talk to fans about highlights they will often name a coach trip to Kent – there and back in a day – to watch the club lose 4-3 to Dover Athletic in the second round of the FA Trophy.
One arresting fact about lower-league sides is that while attendances rise when a club is doing well, they rise a lot more when a club is facing relegation. The coach trip to Dover may have been exciting but Susan enters a kind of ecstatic trance when describing The Great Escape – the time Marine avoided relegation in the closing moments of the 2014-15 season thanks to a 2-1 victory against Blyth Spartans. They sang all the way home, as though something more than football had been saved. What was that something?
Adam Bretherton who helps run the unofficial fan group – the Crossender Way – started supporting Marine when he gave up his Liverpool season ticket in order to save up for a mortgage. “The first time I came down here the chairman – Paul Leary – was greeting people at the turnstile. He didn’t recognise me so he introduced himself. And I thought, this is good.”
Adam and the other Crossenders noticed that the club didn’t do much in the way of social media so started to do their own post-match interviews. “I’d often had a few drinks so I was sometimes not that clear about who I was interviewing and whether they had actually played.” In the end, the official fan association were persuaded to start providing their own content.
Part of the attraction of supporting a club like Marine is the fact that a fan like Adam can have an impact like that. Susan’s day job was as an environmental health officer. Mrs Marine is her superhero identity. At Rossett Road a little girl can shout and be heard. The night the team qualified for this match by beating Havant & Waterlooville, my friend Stuart posted a photograph of the goalkeeper Bayleigh Passant – still in his kit – dashing back from the Co-Op where he’d bought some carry out booze for his teammates.
This togetherness is widely cited as an argument for the widespread belief that Marine will prevail on Sunday. That and the fact that it’s probably been a while since Spurs played on a pitch where the ball might have to be retrieved from someone’s back garden. I’ve been re-reading and recommending JL Carr’s novel How Steeple Sinderby Rovers Won the FA Cup, somehow forgetting that it’s a work of fiction not a handbook.
I know I know, the FA Cup isn’t really magic. The main reason it holds such glamour for people of a certain age is that it was the only match that went out live on TV. On the estate where I grew up every window would have its curtains half drawn on the day of the FA Cup Final to keep the sun off the screen. The fact that a Marine game is going to be televised is almost compensation for the fact that we won’t be watching it together.
If this last terrible year could do one good thing it would be to move the definition of the word community away from its more recent meaning – online interest group – back towards its older, more challenging meaning – the people who live near you with whom you have to learn to get along with. The magic of Marine – and clubs like it all over the country – is the magic that will get us through these next few months.
The magic of knowing that shared bad times – whether they be lockdowns or rainy nights in Stalybridge – can bring you together. The magic of knowing that we matter to each other. Indeed that we only matter at all in so far as we matter to each other.
Frank Cottrell Boyce is a British screenwriter and novelist