It’s fun down here... life outside the Premier League
At the end of the 2003 season Exeter City were facing relegation from the Football League. They had to win their last game of the season to stay up, and needed Swansea to lose against Hull City as well. My mate Mike and I, both Chelsea supporters but living in Devon, decided to go along to savour the atmos. It was a win-win situation: if City won we could pretend we were diehard fans and whoop it up with the locals; if they lost we could enjoy a little schadenfreude.
City had already given us so much to laugh about in that season – first up there was Uri Geller and Michael Jackson (yes – the real one!), then there were all the questions that went unanswered, like "Where's all the money gone?", "How come the ground was sold for next to nothing," and "Is it really true that Michael Jackson (yes – still the real one!) once came all the way to the ground but didn't stay to watch the actual game?" And, above all, how come Uri didn't see all this coming considering all the psychic powers he has at his disposal.
Anyway, back to the day. The ground held 9,000 and City were only getting gates of about 3,000 back then, so we were pretty sure of getting in. But as the crowds swelled around the surrounding streets some dickhead policeman kept moving us from one queue to another and by the time we got within sight of the turnstile the ground was full! Bastard copper!
We drifted aimlessly round the ground. It's only built up on three sides and the end along St James Road is just a small uncovered bank – where the away fans stand and get wet. Behind the bank is a road and a row of houses. The front yards are slightly raised ... we climbed up and could see about a third of the pitch. With the help of an abandoned shopping trolley we could see almost two-thirds of the pitch. We settled in for a precarious hour and a half. Other ticketless fans began to gather around us. One had the radio on so we could listen to the Swansea match as we watched. Another enterprising young chap scuttled away to an off licence and came back selling cans of cider at a 100 per cent mark-up (he should have been chairman of the club). I had a few. By the end of the game I was finding it hard to balance.
City won the game, but so did Swansea, so the Conference beckoned. I'd had a cracking day though.
The next season it never crossed my mind to go back until they got Man Utd in the FA Cup. They drew 0–0 at Old Trafford and got a replay at home. Determined to get a seat, I went straight to the ground to buy tickets in advance. I was met by the local press who shoved a City scarf in to my hands and invited me to shout "CITY!" for their cameras. What a fraud. "Is this the way celebs get tickets?" I thought. No, it wasn't. I didn't get one. They were only on sale to season-ticket holders, and members of the recently formed Supporter's Trust. Bastards!
The trust, the gate receipts from the Man Utd games, and the TV money for the home game saved the club from liquidation. I watched the game on the telly. It was the first time I'd seen them play on the whole pitch! There was something brilliantly incongruous about watching Ronaldo take corners in front of an advert for Ivor Dewdeny Pasties. City lost 2-0, but it was fun to watch. I started going to the odd match. I was still a season-ticket holder at Chelsea, but there was something funny going on...
The next season, 2004-05, I had season tickets for Chelsea and Exeter City. Luckily, they didn't meet otherwise I'd have had to beat myself up. Chelsea won the league for the first time since 1955. City came sixth in the Conference. I only renewed my City ticket.
Why? Frankly, it was more fun.
Everyone thought Father Christmas had come when Abramovich bought Chelsea, but he's a remote figure and, though Mourinho was entertaining, his team wasn't. They were efficient and cautious and boring and full of people who kept falling over all the time. Exeter City were frankly low on talent, and there was a lot of head tennis and route one stuff, but they were all sporting and passionate and keen on playing the game. Sport is sport. I've watched my daughters playing netball and hockey and found myself engrossed – shouting and cheering like an away fan whose team have just scored ... to the consternation of the other mothers (not many dads at netball and hockey).
Going to Premier League games, there's an overwhelming feeling of being ripped off. Following the lower leagues you get the feeling that you're actually supporting the club – that it couldn't exist without you. I'm a City Trust Member now, so I do in fact own the majority shareholding (with 2,500 others).
And the away games around London are brilliant. Crawley, Ebbsfleet, Grays, Woking – crumbling grounds where I've invariably stood out in the rain on crumbling terraces, eating crumbling food and drinking crumbling tea (yes, crumbling tea) – but, bizarrely, it all adds to the fun. Add to that the excitement of a small club going to Wembley two years in a row for the play-off finals ... and getting back into the league this summer.
The only thing we've got to come up with is a song as good as "Blue Is The Colour". "Ooo-Aar We Are Exeter" repeated 12 times doesn't compare. But it is easy to sing. Especially when you've had a few ciders.
Adrian Edmondson's new punk/folk band, The Bad Shepherds, go on tour this autumn. For details go to www.thebadshepherds.com
Mark Steel: You are my Palace, my only Palace
The comedian, author and broadcaster Mark Steel supports Crystal Palace
I support Crystal Palace simply because I live in Crystal Palace. It really depresses me when I see kids around here wearing Arsenal or Manchester United shirts. It's not that I've got anything against those teams, but fans of big clubs invest as much time in their team as fans of teams like mine.
It's got to the point where the Premier League is a stupid soap opera: a multisquillion pound soap opera. It's almost sordid to follow it. To even watch it is to give it too much credence.
Once you go down through the leagues there is at least some connection between the teams and the area they are supposed to represent. The last time we were in the Premier League I went to the pub with my son to watch us against Man Utd at Old Trafford. It was packed full of Palace fans and the atmosphere was great. We ended up losing 5-2 and when the final whistle went there was this one United fan who shouted "Yes". The whole pub turned on him and started chanting "We support our local team." That's what it's all about.
When Neil Warnock arrived he was forced to raid the youth team. It transformed the club because even though we weren't winning at least we were cheering on the lads from around the corner. One of them went to the same school as my son. It was brilliant. Clubs should be a part of their community.
It's not just Palace, though, I love lower league football. I'm doing a gig in Hereford tonight and I'm gutted that they aren't at home. I remember doing a show in Wales and going to a Bangor City game. There was tiny hut selling Bovril and the like. Midway through the second half the woman came out of the hut and announced that she had made too much soup and that if anyone wanted any they could have it for free. Loads of guys stopped watching the game and went and queued up for their free soup.
The football is rubbish at times, but there is something about supporting a lower league team that you just don't get in the Premier League. There is something distasteful about the top flight. And it's boring.
Alastair Campbell: Bur-ner-ley, Bur-ner-ley...
Alastair Campbell, former press secretary to Tony Blair, supports Burnley.
I'm a great believer in the maxim: you can only appreciate success if you have known setback and disappointment. If you are a Chelsea fan who has only followed them for the last four or five years, last year was one of the only disappointments you will have had, and that was losing in the Champions League final.
When I started supporting Burnley they actually were one of the best teams in the country, in the top three. But I still get as much out of supporting them now as I ever have. I went to the Fulham game the other night and we won 1-0. It was a small crowd, but a brilliant atmosphere and after the win the journey back to London didn't seem so long.
The good thing about supporting a smaller team is that you do get to know a far bigger proportion of the fans. I have been bumping into the same people at Turf Moor for years.
Compare that, in the last few years, to the make-up of the crowd at Chelsea, for example. It's ever-changing. I've got no objection to people from Japan or Taiwan or Norway going to Premier League games, but there is definitely a high turnover of fans at the big teams nowadays.
I'd say the atmosphere at most Championship games is better per head that the Premier League. Let's say one week at Burnley we have a crowd of about 11,000. That's one-fifth of the attendance at Arsenal, but I can guarantee you that there is no way the atmosphere at Arsenal is five times as good.
The best things about supporting Burnley are good quality football, a real sense of belonging to the community and a good atmosphere.
That's not to say I only watch Burnley, I'll watch just about any football if it's on television. And my son is a Manchester United fan so we go up to Old Trafford every now and then. I enjoy it and I like to see them win for my son's sake, but there is only one team that gets my juices flowing.
I don't begrudge people who follow big clubs but I think that you only get out of football what you put in. The night we beat Liverpool in the cup at Turf Moor would not have meant anything if we didn't have all the crap Wednesday night defeats in the rain away to Hartlepool.
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