BUTLER REPORT: 'WHEN I WAS JUST A LITTLE BOY'

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31/05/2022

On 11th August 2007 at 15:00, Solihull Moors Football Club kicked off its first ever competitive fixture, a home league tie in the Blue Square Conference North against Barrow AFC. The Moors came from behind to salvage a 1-1 draw through a long-range Darren Middleton screamer. I remember banging the barrier on the halfway line on the far side of the ground, which was then empty (but for a dilapidated, half-hearted attempt at a single step of terracing), and the enthusiasm of my celebration in the sleepy stadium making my brother laugh.

He was ten years and seven weeks old precisely. I was sixteen and seven months. And Solihull Moors, though effectively brand new, was already an (albeit uneasy at the time) alliance of the legacy of amalgamated club histories dating back to 1953 and 1901. If Solihull Moors was simultaneously the successor of both clubs and yet now demonstrably neither of them, it might equally be hard to believe for some that the success story of 2022 is the same club we saw taking its competitive bow that sunny August afternoon.

I don’t remember much about that game. I mostly remember my brother finding the way that people from Barrow pronounced the word ‘water’ to be funny, the Moors goal being good, and celebrating it. In fact, there are a lot of games and goals, important ones especially, that I remember little detail about but can vividly remember celebrating. Like being instantly transported back to another place and time in your life through sudden exposure to a familiar smell or sound, emotional memories are transcendental. You remember your first kiss (even if it was rubbish), your first time (even if it was rubbish), and you certainly remember bellowing, bouncing, and hugging your mate next to you after the equaliser in the FA Cup at Yeovil, or at the final whistle at Wigan. I recalled both of those things on thinking of another moment that I’ll never forget: screaming – literally screaming uncontrollably with the emotional release – leaping, hugging and backslapping with Gurd and Neale in the Tuck Shop End after Andy Dallas equalised on Sunday against Chesterfield. The emotion – the pride, the joy, the vindication – is palpably driving back through my muscles with renewed adrenaline even as I recall it.

And so to Sunday: a leviathan of an event that can only for so long contain itself from domination of my waking consciousness. When I was ten years old, like my brother at his first Solihull game, Grimsby Town finished eighteenth in Football League Division One – The Championship. I will have listened that season – undoubtedly with frustration – to Tom Ross soliloquising in occasional falsetto on 1152AM Capital Gold, live at Blundell Park as Birmingham City stumbled to a 1-1 draw in the third game of what would become a winless run of ten, until then beating Grimsby Town at St Andrew’s on 28th April 2001. Is that really the same Grimsby Town FC? The old football adage, one with which Mr Ross will be intimately familiar, is that you are only as good as your last performance. One might reframe this more accurately as a club only being as good as their current level; if Man Utd were relegated to the National League, they’d still be National League, even with all their Premier League and Football League accolades. And yet, familiarity and identity with that learned status – that of the elite, or at least somehow more worthy than competing in the National League – is a kind of cognitive dissonance for supporters of ‘BELTs’ (big ex-League teams) with which those of us birthed by the National League North are familiar. Take the genuine institutional fury of Chesterfield FC and its followers that they were only allocated 575 tickets for Sunday’s game, and the vitriolic reactions it generated. In their minds, their club is still the Chesterfield of League One, and our competitive advantage over them was an unearned affront. Welcome to ‘La Bastarda’ (the National League); these are hostile waters.


Am I now the same person as the ten-year-old boy listening swathed in bedclothes to Grimsby playing Championship football? In Philosophy, there are several thought experiments surrounding the problem of identity over time. If you are the same person as your ten-year-old self, what is it that makes that the case? Unless you are an eleven or twelve-year-old with a high boredom threshold reading this, your body for a start is self-evidently different. Your experiences may have changed and broadened quite dramatically over time. The ways in which you interact with the world around you and the people, ideas, and ideals you identify with may have shifted dramatically. If I were to travel back in time and meet myself aged ten, we would demonstrably be different people. Aside from the evident physical disparity, other things have changed over time. If I asked that boy which football team he supported, the answer would be Birmingham City. If I pressed him for an "and…" it would be “and England” (and then maybe Scotland). Solihull Moors didn’t exist. The idea that I am excited to go to a huge game, at a stadium where London would one day have hosted the Olympics, between a club from Solihull and Grimsby Town in the fifth tier of English football, would be mind-boggling to him.


So, is Solihull Moors the same club as the one that played sixth-tier football in front of crowds of 250? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no, and here again human aging as a metaphor is useful when thinking about this. Grimsby compared to the relative virile peak of 2001 might be said to have aged, greyed, and withered. In the case of the Moors, there is a sense of ‘growing up’ or ‘coming of age’ about the past few seasons. Consider again the meeting between my ten-year-old and thirty-one-year-old selves. The difference in my experience, worldly knowledge, and cognitive ability gained over time would create a clear and obvious power imbalance between the two versions of myself. We might share a lot of interests and get on, we may share the same memories up to a point and bond over them, but we wouldn’t be equals in every way. Similarly, Solihull Moors of 2021/22 are not on the same competitive footing as Solihull Moors of 2018/19, let alone Solihull Moors of 2015/16 or 2007/08. The resources and facilities now are superior, the fanbase and community roots are incomparable, and performance on the pitch has come with that. 


The problem this brings is again one of dissonance between our imagined ideal of what our club is and reality, exacerbated by the pace at which that has changed. Each of us is guilty of wearing rose-tinted spectacles about some aspect of the past, or some ideal in the present. Our football clubs, though, are our communities. They are like families. They are, in a sense, our babies. And like healthy parents, we learn to relate to them differently as they grow. The bittersweet pride a parent feels on their child’s first day of school isn’t the same joyous pride they feel at their graduation, but it certainly isn’t lesser. In fact, there is every reason to think it could be more. By the same mechanism, the way in which we support a ten-year-old is not usually the same as with a thirty-one-year-old, but the act of caring does not change even if it is expressed in different circumstances. To pine for the club of the Conference North is to pine for a phantasm of our memory, to solipsise, to deny our community its agency and identity. We slip from parent-as-champion into parent-as-custodian – or worse: in the words of Eric Lemay, on the character Humbert Humbert’s obsession with his imagined ideal of adolescent Dolores in Nabokov’s Lolita, “to seal [her] within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.”


Whether or not we are fans of Vladimir Nabokov, humans are natural born storytellers. We tell ourselves powerful tales about who we are. We tell those stories to ourselves. We tell those stories to each other, explicitly and implicitly. We use each other to tell collective stories about who we are, where we’re from, and sometimes even why that is. My internal reference library prints eulogies before my eyes every time I am home. The checkerboard slabs on the slip roads of M42, junction five, now (like me) bearded, chipped, and saddened by age, but still the marker of arrival onto home territory as designated when I was five. Crossing the bridge over the canal and thinking about how it was where I once saw Martin jogging in full Solihull Moors spandex. The choice of route under the old railway bridge that screams “LupoCA” and leans into terracotta Victorian terraces whose faces glow Mediterranean in the afternoon sun. The rightward turn up a leafy cul-de-sac of thirties semis, loomed ponderously upon by grey 1960s tower blocks, to take the alleyway that staggers drunkenly, low walls supporting wooden fences bulging out like beer bellies and pavement unable to move in a straight line, and pass through the ring of 1950s council houses to the bus stop into town. Every match day, we tell our shared libraries of stories to each other, as we remake our community and renew our bonds on every meeting. The trips to Workington and Blyth, and Redditch away, and Darren Middleton, and yes: journeys to Notts County and Chesterfield and Boreham Wood too, with their new characters on and off the pitch.


And so, I welcome with pride every new Moors fan, from the youngsters in the family zone, sitting in a brand-new main stand where once stood ‘The Number Two Crew’ on steps in front of portacabin toilets, to older ones gathered on one side of the Tuck Shop End terrace wondering why they occasionally see people wearing old white tee-shirts that make grammatically incorrect statements about what to do with their bread. There is story, and experience, and love, and solidarity everywhere around, no matter what Chesterfield supporters may think of the Damson Park surroundings, and those are for us all to continue to share, and to produce, and to revel within – hopefully at a completely new sporting level from next season. On Sunday, I will wear again my white 2008 Solihull Moors home shirt and its clipart badge, not (only) as a reminder that I was there, half my lifetime ago, when things were very different, and not at all out of rejection of Solihull Moors of 2022, but because of my pride in the Moors of now, of where we are from, of how far we have come, how far we might yet go. And most of all, because for me it is still the same club I love, and Sunday – regardless of outcome – will be the most important day of the footballing life I share with it.


Come all ye bread dipping Moorons: this is my story, tell me yours, for the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum. Have you heard the one about the club with more youth and junior teams than anyone else in England, or the one about the club where England's tallest professional player is a fan favourite? What about the one about the squad on top of the form table, off to play the National League Promotion Playoff Final at West Ham? I'll be there at the London Stadium, with my brother, whom I also still love, even if he's now twenty-four years and fifty weeks old and the memories we make are different. Sing us a story of triumph, because sometimes it doesn't just have to be the old days that were the best.


Qué sera sera,
Whatever will be will be
We’re going to Bethnal Green
Where the Moors march in