The Bottom Corner: Hope, Glory and Non-League Football by Nige Tassell. It is out now from Yellow Jersey Press (£9.99) penguin.co.uk.
‘SWANSONGS AND ENCORES IN NOVEMBER 2015’ – PART ONE
It had been an unprecedented few days for non-league football. The spotlight had never shone so bright before, its beam illuminating the nooks and crannies, the folds and creases, of a semi-pro scene that would otherwise have remained invisible to Joe or Josephine Public.
A week or two ago, barely anyone outside Sheffield had heard of Stocksbridge Park Steels. Football fans up and down the country now know it is the club that launched Jamie Vardy’s unstoppable rise from lower-tier anonymity to Premier League ubiquity. At the time, Vardy could only play the first sixty minutes of Stockbridge’s Saturday matches – and none of their midweek games – because the terms of a curfew, earned for an assault conviction, dictated that he be back home no later than 6pm. His parents would sit in their car, turning the ignition key the moment the subs board was held to the skies, telling Vardy his time was up. Cinderella had to be home before the clock struck six.
This weekend, the whippet-thin, whippet-fast striker’s penalty against Watford brought him just one short of Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in ten consecutive Premier League games. But it wasn’t just the Vardy back-story that had heads craning in the direction of the pyramid’s lower reaches. This overnight fascination with matters non-league came with another link to the top flight of the English game – namely the five holders of innumerable Premier League medals who, in their financially well-padded retirements, fancied a little sport. They had all chucked in some loose change to buy a club from the Northern Premier League Division One North.
Two nights before Vardy drew within one goal-scoring game of their former team-mate’s record, the Salford City-owning ex-Man Utd quintet had their plans, not to mention their acumen as owners, scrutinised by the nation on prime-time TV. The two-part, fly-on-the-wall documentary “The Class of ’92: Out of Their League” revealed the warts-and-all workings of a semi-pro football club to more than three million gripped viewers. (Asst Editor – we covered the programme during the 2015-16 season, in our Match-Day Magazine here at Grays).
As if the documentary wasn’t enough for the BBC, the very next night after the second episode was broadcast, Salford’s home tie against Notts County in the First Round of the FA Cup, also sat proud in the corporation’s prime-time schedule, thanks to a Friday-night live screening on BBC2. [Asst Editor - no researcher for a TV programme could have ever predicted that when they decided to make the documentary on the club, but the possibility of a giant-killing act certainly made for good TV!].
The Beeb’s radio-heads were also present. ‘The FA Cup begins here!’ trumpeted Five Live. No one told them that it was actually the club’s seventh match in the competition to date. [Asst Editor – but why spoil a good story with the facts? – as we used to say to ‘Your Thurrock’ back in the good old days, when they actually reported first-hand on matters concerning Grays Athletic!].
The last time I was here at Moor Lane, in one of Salford’s leafier quarters, an abandoned TV had been dumped on the pavement outside, while the main gate was adorned with a poster for a lost ferret. Things are a bit more together now. The BBC’s outside broadcast trucks are neatly parked behind one goal, additional Portaloos have been hired and the Salford guardian of the team-bar, Babs, has drafted in extra personnel to help cope with the demand for meaty pies and hot sweet tea. There’s no news on the ferret’s whereabouts, though.
Overnight, Salford have – admittedly through artificial means – become the country’s favourite non-league team. [Asst Editor – today, we have another club, rather closer to Grays than Salford, who, through “artificial means” can probably claim to have taken on the mantle of “favourite non-league team”. The “Billericay Dickies” are sitting pretty for the time being]. Even without the documentary, a nation of arm-chair viewers would still be tuning in. The First Round of the FA Cup is the point at which the mainstream sits up and takes notice of non-league, the stage when the neutrals align themselves with the underdogs, backing teams whose locations they couldn’t place on a map. This is the weekend when the part-timers – the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick-makers and, in the case of Salford skipper Chris Lynch, the night-shift gas-fitters – get the love. The fascination with Premier League shenanigans and tittle-tattle is put on hold while a nation reconnects with – cliché alert – real football.
Tonight, Salford find little resistance from Notts County. Not even the presence of Alan Smith and Roy Carroll, the ex-Man Utd pair in the visitors’ ranks can prevent a 2-0 reverse. The win is crowned by an extraordinary solo goal by Salford midfielder Richie Allen, twisting, turning and tormenting the opposing defenders with all the control and poise of Ricky Villa in the ’81 final. It was an individual goal – and a team display – that will keep eyes on the non-league scene for a little longer. That spotlight needn’t be switched off yet.
Salford weren’t the only seventh-tier team dishing out knock-out blows to Football League opposition that weekend. Chesham United, of the Evo-Stik Southern League Premier, travelled to Bristol Rovers and calmly disposed of their three-divisions-higher hosts. The victory was a bittersweet affair for Chesham’s player-coach. On his way to Premier League fame with Fulham, Barry Hales spent a season and a half at the Memorial Ground, his thirty-two goals in sixty-two league appearances granting him eternal cult status in Bristol’s northern suburbs. A fortnight after that emotional return, he’s back in the West Country, this time for a distinctly prosaic league fixture against Paulton Rovers.
Hayles is forty-three now, the age by which most former pros have got their feet under the carpet in cushy broadcasting roles or have reinvented themselves as loyal, dues-paying coaches or are renewing their annual membership at the local golf course. Hayles, though, can’t stop playing – and is unembarrassed by seeing out his days at this comparatively low level.
Grounds like this would have been familiar territory for Hayles in his younger days. Today is romance-free. It’s a sour game on a sour day. A chant goes up at the away end: ‘Everywhere we go / Everywhere we go / We are the Chesham boys / Making the noise.’ This is surely ironic. They’re not making much noise; only half a dozen are bothering to raise their voices. Mouths are kept shut to keep the cold out. During a lull in play, the stewards can be heard comparing the respective thickness of their thermal socks, but surely no one is colder than the gloveless physio cradling a chunky bag of ice as she scurries across the pale shelter of the dugouts. The players’ limbs seem to be protesting too much and are refusing to work as they should. A sliced clearance smashes on the metal grille of the tea bar, recalling one of Richie Benaud’s most memorable lines about an Ian Botham slog that went straight into the confectionary stall and out again.
Today, Hayles, aside from being part of the Chesham coaching team, is one of the substitutes. A fixture of the starting X1 before he picked up an injury, he’s itching to regain his place in the playing hierarchy. That’s obvious from his body language. He’s a bag of energy, coiled spring that can’t rest. His seat remains vacant. Instead – wearing a woolly hat, gloves and a pink bib over his blue training top – he’s constantly dancing on his toes on the touchline.
His advice from the sidelines is a mixture of gentle persuasion and more rapid-fire instruction, all informed by a quarter-century of experience that saw him climb from the lowlands of Willesden Hawkeye to the peak that is the Premier League. Hew coming down the other side of the mountain, albeit in no particular rush. The younger players nod their acceptance of what he has to say.
Two-thirds of the way through a niggly first half of hoofs, shunts and nudges, Paulton take the lead with a scrappy goal. The interval brings a greasy tea and some insipid Justin Bieber being played over the PA to the appreciation of precisely no one. Chesham are reduced to ten men after one of their strikers is dismissed for backchat. Hayles quietly gets on with his task, instructing his players to fill the gaps that an early departure has created. He’s a pragmatic man. Inwardly frustrated for sure, but someone who gets on with dealing with irreversible decisions.
When Paulton double their lead, though, his frustration goes public. The fact that the nearside linesman seems able only to raise his flag after the referee has made every decision just exacerbates matters. The dying breaths of these ugly ninety minutes are notable only for the way they keep the ball-retrieving volunteers busy. During stoppage time, at least half a dozen balls are hoofed into the car park or onto the roofs of the adjacent bungalows. One ball in particular appears to be on its way to the neighbouring village. Finesse, in short supply this afternoon as it is, loses out to frustration.
The showered players emerge and Hayles and I retire to the peace and quiet of the clubhouse snooker room – although the young daughter of one of the players is insisting on performing rolls at our feet. Over our Guinness and a polystyrene bowl of home-cooked stew, the frustrations of the afternoon subside with every warming forkful Hayles takes. All big smiles and easy laughter, he reflects on the extended autumn of his playing career.
‘It still feels the same. I’m not pretending to be a youngster out there, but – and I know this is a cliché – age is nothing but a number. Of course, I’m not going to have the pace that I had when I was in the Premier League, but if I can read the game a bit quicker than others and get myself in certain places where I think the ball is going to drop, that gives me an advantage. The body’s holding up and I wish I could have played today to show you what it still means.’
Hayles never devised a plan that carved out a second, post-pro career and, well into his forties, his playing days have been extended on an ad-hoc basis. Never knowing whether each season might be his last, it’s been swansong after swansong after swansong. ‘If the phone stopped ringing, that would be it. The boots would get put away. But the phone has kept ringing. Andy the manager’s already asked me if I’m going to stick around for next season. We’ll see.’ His plastic fork scoops up carrots, peas and chunks of indeterminate meat. ‘Never say never.’
Hayles certainly doesn’t make it easy for himself. Since his professional career, he’s had three spells down at Truro City. There are probably 100 decent non-league sides within an hour’s drive of his home in the South East. Instead, signing for an ex-team-mate at Truro meant a 550-mile round trip every week – and at journey’s end, there was no well-appointed hotel in which to relax, refresh and recuperate. During his third spell in Cornwall, home on Friday nights was a static caravan on the mobile-home site owned by Truro’s chairman.
Signing for Chesham last summer means a comparatively short hop to Buckinghamshire. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Not only does the Chesham boss get the benefit of Hayles’s goals (ten days ago he scored a hat-trick in the Berks & Bucks Senior Cup), he also gets the accumulated wisdom of someone with right-through-the-leagues experience. ‘The manager hasn’t limited my input. He’s given me free reign. I say what I want, when I want. He gives me a lot of freedom to express my opinion.’
The circle complete, Hayles is living and breathing (and goalscoring) proof that the big time can still beckon those who’ve started out at low altitude, down in the regional divisions. ‘It means a lot for me to come back and share this with them,’ he notes with a satisfaction that’s anything but forced. ‘I keep trying to emphasise this to the younger boys who’ve got the ability to get to the next level. A few of them take it on board, a few of them think “If it happens, it happens”. But you’ve got to try and make it happen.’ And his tale continues. He’s not just going through the motions, seeing his time out in the dusk of his career. The latest FA Cup run is a very real thing in itself, another chapter in an ever-extending biography.
He’s the last to climb aboard the coach on which both team and fans will travel back to Buckinghamshire. A two-hour journey home after a defeat is worse than a five-hour journey home after a victory, especially if the stench of a gross injustice – that hastily issued red card – lingers in the air. Because of their exploits in various cup competitions, today was the fifth of seven successive away games for Chesham. The players are getting used to riding on that coach, but none have clocked as many miles as Barry Hayles.
The adventures keep coming for Barry Hayles. After FA Cup glory and a mediocre league season with Chesham United, he jumped on a jet plane to spend June 2016 representing England Veterans at the Seniors World Cup in Thailand. At the age of forty-four, Hayles is now in possession of a World Cup winner’s medal.
UPDATE BY THE WANDERER
Hayles remained at Chesham for the 2016-17 season and made thirty appearances, scoring seven goals. At the age of forty-five, he moved on to Uhlsport Hellenic Premier Division newcomers, Windsor, as player/coach in August 2017 and has made twenty-four appearances and scored seven goals so far this season. Windsor have made it through to the fourth round of the FA Vase and will play away at Eastbourne Town on 6 January 2018. More Cup exploits for our Barry?
Updated 16:19 - 2 Jan 2018 by GAFC News