The beautiful game: Life in the lower leagues at Kingstonian FC
It’s three hours until kick-off. A small but mighty army of volunteers are putting the final touches in place before the imminent arrival of the two teams, the visiting directors, and the 411 supporters who will witness an entertaining game of Ryman Premier Division football this afternoon.
There’s Rob the head steward unlocking emergency exit gates dotted around the ground; there’s Vicky and Tina preparing the boardroom; and there’s George getting ready to sell raffle tickets at a pound a go.
They, and the many other thousands like them up and down the country, are the lifeblood of non-league football. This is a world free of the glitz and glamour and gluttony of the Premier League, six steps further up the pyramid. This is a local pub or a village market fete, a community of like-minded folk brought together. This is Kingstonian.
It’s two hours until kick-off. The tracksuited home players are arriving in dribs and drabs. The manager has been there for a while, discussing thigh strains and shorts with the physio-cum-kitman, checking on the second bar where he will host a fundraising event later that night, and getting his tactics visually ready on the small whiteboards in one corner of the square dressing room.
Upon alighting their team coach, the visiting players almost immediately head for the bar. The big screen is showing a televised FA Cup fifth round match. Many of them will no doubt have been chewed up and spat out by a ruthless professional club at the age of 15, or 16, or maybe even later. They’ll have old team-mates who made it. They’ll always wonder what might have been. But they’re here, too. Their dreams of playing full-time may have died, but their love of the game is well and truly alive.
It’s an hour until kick-off. The teams are safely ensconced in their respective dressing rooms. Soon they’ll start warming up on a bog of a pitch, not helped by steady pre-match rain. The bar is now full of beer-drinking supporters, not Lucozade-guzzling players. Excited chatter abounds. A big game, between two play-off rivals, beckons.
It’s an hour after the final whistle. Vicky has collected all the litter from the deserted stadium. Rob has relocked the gates. The boardroom’s still busy. The players, meanwhile, are back in their tracksuits, and back in the bar, only now their drink of choice has hops and yeast in it. It’s a chance for them to mingle with the supporters, and together they reflect on the 90 minutes that went before. Their opinions may differ, but their sense of belonging, like everything in non-league football, is truly shared.
Photography by Matt O’Shea
Words by Rupert Cane