I Know It’s Rovers: My Journey Into South London Non-league Football

(This is an extended version of an article I had in the South London Press recently. I have decided to publish it here to correct any misconceptions about the club following yesterday’s incident at IKEA in Purley Way.)

I grew up in a tough suburb of Greater Manchester called Cheshire. I’ve supported Man City since I was a nipper, physically recoiling from the coachloads of pheasant-shooting Surrey aristocrats who support cross-town rivals United.

As a northerner forced against his will to live “daaarrrn saaarrrfff” his entire adult life by the evil machinations of a Londoncentric economy (and the fact my parents bought me a flat in Tulse Hill) I am naturally aghast at the thought of watching a southern football team, but with my burgeoning journalism career getting in the way of regular trips to the Etihad I bit the bullet and started touring some local non-league clubs.

My first port of call was the now notorious Dulwich Hamlets FC. The fact that they choose to go by that name in spite of their Champion Hill stadium lying on the cusp of the more ethnically diverse Peckham and Camberwell neighbourhoods gave me some hope of authentic and legitimate working-class football, but I was much disappointed. The hipster problem at Dulwich is now so pronounced they are ironically hiring hundreds of middle aged character actors to pose as lifelong supporters, talking in absurd approximations of the white South London accent. It’s a sad sight.

My next stop was Clapton FC in Forest Gate, east London (which will hopefully become a short commute if me and my parents’ campaign to extend Crossrail 2 to Tulse Hill is successful). Their so-called Ultras have a left wing reputation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as left wing as anyone, but couldn’t help feeling they should moderate the message, perhaps balance it out with banners calling for, say, a reduction in maternity pay, or an amnesty for Marine A. There was even a lefty protest going on outside the (suspiciously empty) ground!

I eventually ended up at the Greyhound Lane stadium in SW16, a mere 30 minutes walk from my gaff in Tulse Hill. Home to Streatham Rovers who play in the Surrey & Sussex League (known as the Xtermin8 Rat Poison Football League for sponsorship reasons), the ramshackle ground in the south end of the town is hidden within a nondescript block of tatty houses, failing shops and closed boozers (see my extensive bibliography of articles on the slow death of the traditional working-class London pub).

Going through the rusty turnstile was like a reawakening. No, I won’t mince my words, it was a reawakening. I paid my entrance fee to a reassuringly toothless old man, Harry, a proper football man in his sixth decade of unpaid voluntary labour. Already I was feeling at home.

Sure, the Rovers haven’t completely escaped the gentrification of non-league football. There’s so-called Ultras, there’s some beards, the pies don’t taste like dog meat and the crowds are healthy enough to wade off immediate liquidation. But there’s a spirit and a warmth that you wouldn’t get at other clubs. And there’s the Authento-Brigade, a bunch of scallywags and misfits who care deeply about the game. Here old punks mingle with buy-to-let landlords to discuss Stone Island clobber, mod haircuts, closed pubs, the cancer of diving, British Rail logo tattoos and our unified disbelief that Diane Abbott hasn’t been imprisoned.

Before I knew it, I was a regular, watching the famous purple and greens push for promotion. Under progressive manager Taff Goose (note: not racist) the team play a progressive brand of football that the club’s owners hope will progress the club up the non-league pyramid, progressively. If you think this level of football is all hoof and snarl, think again. Rovers have put together a team of seasoned journeymen and heartbroken teenagers booted out of professional clubs’ academies that plays some pretty attractive stuff.

More progressive still is the club’s sabermetrics department, the biggest in non-league. Admittedly the necessary data doesn’t really exist at this level of the game, but they are pushing for Opta to start monitoring the Xtermin8 League.

But it’s not all good news. The club has been beset by tragedy. Three people (thankfully not Rovers staff) died at Streatham games last year (through no fault of the club). An escaped elephant rampaged on the pitch during their otherwise successful ‘Non League Day’ event. And a hidden camera prank for a reboot of Beadle’s About went badly wrong recently, with Goose facing a court date after an alleged attack on Vernon Kaye.

The club has faced unfair criticism for having its shirts sponsored by an evictions and bailiffs firm (from the usual suspects who expect a grassroots community club to run on fresh air — and yet remain eerily silent over rivals Dynamo Catford’s sponsorship by Schrödinger’s strip club). And their contract with German kit manufacturers Owayo was terminated after failing to get copyright clearance for their special third kit that marked the 30th anniversary of the controversial artwork Piss Christ by Andres Serrano.

Perhaps most problematic for the Greyhounds is the dilapidated state of their home. The Greyhound Lane stadium has seen better days. It is increasingly expensive to run and, if the club’s recent growth in crowds (14% since the start of the 204/15 season) continues it will be too small by the year 2089. However, the club’s owners Aubergine Football Investments, part of Hestia Property, are working on a solution with Lambeth Council that would involve building a new stadium in the neighbouring Cowsick Estate as part of an extensive redevelopment.

Certain radical left types, the usual suspects, spuriously claim that this will be “another case” of removing desperately needed affordable housing, but when a sink estate is so crime-riddled it has a low official crime rate (because residents are clearly too scared of kneecappings and other reprisals to contact the police) can we really “afford” to let this vortex of debauchery remain in used-syringe distance of our precious children?

So the future is simultaneously bright yet cloudy for the only senior football club in the borough. But one thing’s for certain: football should always be the winner.