The Anorak World of the Unibond Northern Premier League

So the football season is here at last, and the whole nation is running around like a kid who’s eaten a whole bag of Haribo in one sitting. Football is falling out of our every orifice. DVDs, Sky, Setanta, the BBC, the internet, sopcast, blogs, newspapers, sticker albums; we’re cramming as much football in to our chunky, visually repulsive little bodies as we can. But like that same kid, it’s only a matter of time before we fall in to a deep sugar slump, unable to move, with vomit caked hair stuck to our face.


The realisation kicks in that no matter how loudly or often we try and convince ourselves and everyone else that we give a shit, by shouting “YEAH! FOOTBALL! WOOHOOO! YEAH!” the season will be exactly the same as it was last year, and the year before that. OK, everything might be won by PetroDollar FC, rather than Hedge Fund United, but the top three or four are pretty much interchangeable beasts anyway.

Meanwhile the mid table will be filled up with non-descript teams, playing God awful football, as uninterested millionaires take it in turns to hoof the latest Nike football made from the cheeks of real babies to ensure a perfect spherical shape.

Of course there’s more to football than the Premier League. Thank God. But such is the blanket media coverage of Sky’s favourite product, you have to go to so much trouble to find it it’s barely worth it. It’s no wonder that as top flight attendances fall, the viewing figures for Coronation Street increase (I’ve not checked if this is the case at all, actually. But it certainly should be). It’s top quality entertainment on tap, four times a week. Unpredictable, passionate, well thought out, and so as not to upset the equilibrium, half the country can watch overpaid celebrities in Manchester strut their stuff from the comfort of their armchair.

Or, of course, you can delve in to the murky, anorak wearing world of the non-leagues. The Unibond Northern Premier League kicked off this weekend, and it’s set to be as unpredictable and exciting as any league in Europe. Fair doos: the quality of the football might not be up to scratch, and you won’t have heard of any of the players, but there are as many billionaires, crooks, chancers, charlatans and oddballs as the Premier League. Buy you won’t be as familiar with their shtick.

(Look, this isn’t another of those ball-achingly tedious ‘modern football is shit’ whinges from a reformed Football evangelical. Far from it. The only purpose I purport to serve is to highlight that something different you may be looking for. It has all the thrills of Corrie, without the disadvantage of having to sit through another tedious Ken and Deirdre storyline)

The NPL is one of the regional leagues that sits directly underneath the Football Conference. This season threatens to be one of the best ever, with at least half a dozen teams having the potential to win the title. According to the bookies, the joint favourites are our old friends Leigh Genesis, now a full-time, professional club, and Bradford Park Avenue.

Park Avenue are an interesting (in the ‘bat-shit crazy’ sense of the word) case. They were bought by a local businessman and millionaire, Bob Blackburn, just over a year ago. His arrival was trumpeted from the grimy, terraced rooftops, and he claimed he was more excited when he bought BPA than he was when he bought his luxury Spanish villa and his yacht. He also kindly provided the usual rhetoric surrounding league football, five year plans, and new stadiums. This, according to Blackburn, has to have a 20,000 capacity. So that’ll be nice and roomy for their 500 fans.

To be fair to Blackburn, he has delivered on most of his promises so far. BPA manager David Cameron (no, not that one, that’d be a step too far) has assembled a very handy looking squad indeed, including Rory Patterson, signed from rivals FC United. And while throwing money at players until they agree to join you (Patterson signed a part-time contract for £450 a week) lacks subtlety, it delivers results. Former Oldham striker Chris Hall, who quit football two years ago to become an actor, and appeared in a BBC3 drama playing ‘man in gimp mask’, also signed up, and scored two of BPA’s four goals on the opening day of the season.

Optimism is high, then, on the field. But question marks surround the running of the club off the pitch following a bizarre and embarrassing story from this summer.

As a reward for winning the NPL div 1 North title last season, Bob Blackburn promised the fans a players a preseason tour of Spain. And sure enough, Bob ‘I always get my man’ Blackburn claimed to have sorted it. Reports appeared in the local paper, and on the official BPA website, heralding a successful tour, in which Rory Patterson scored a hat-trick on his debut. Except he didn’t. He wasn’t there. And nor were most of the BPA team. Bob Blackburn made the whole story up, even going so far as to completely fabricate the three teams they played against. What was no more than a lads’ holiday for a handful of the players had been sold to the fans as a prestigious preseason tour.

When the story finally broke, thanks largely to me and my blog, the BPA fans were up in arms. Bob Blackburn described the story not as a lie, but as a ‘grey area’ of the truth, which is an interesting take on things. As I write no public apology has been made, and the match reports remain on the official website. As I said, bat-shit crazy.

One of the only teams that can match BPA’s spending power is Ilkeston Town, but apparently trying to restore the balance of good and evil, they seem only to want to spend their money to help the local community.

The owner of Ilkeston is Chek Whyte, one of Britains wealthiest men. He appeared recently on Channel 4’s ‘patronise the poor’ programme, Secret Millionaire, where he went undercover in Salford to see how the other half lived. And, having been made to feel suitably guilty, ended up signing cheque after cheque to help local community initiatives.

I’m possibly being a little hard on Mr Whyte here. He’s the son of a lorry driver and grew up on one of the poorest estates in the country. In his teens he fell in with ‘the wrong crowd’ and ended up serving time in jail. It was only after this he got his act together and became one of the most successful property developers in the country.

Rather than throw his money at Ilkeston Town to create a super team to get in to the league, Chek Whyte has different plans.

“There are massive problems and we need to do something here. It will take time, you have got to help me and I will chuck money in,” he told a meeting where he outlined his vision. “I was in foster homes and was dragged up but I am a role model now and want to put something back.”

His vision includes running a true community club in an attempt to keep teenagers away from crime and drugs, as well as running courses and training opportunities. The executive development manager of the scheme added, “This is not the whim of a rich man who wants to build a white elephant which will get him into heaven. This is someone genuine who wants to make a social impact who knows what is happening in the community and wants to make it better.”

This is highly laudable, even to a stone-hearted cynic like me. Football shouldn’t just be about what happens on the field, and success shouldn’t necessarily be measured in terms of number of cups won.

But, perhaps sadly, that is how success is measured, and come the end of the season it won’t be the club who helped the community the most who gets promoted. It’ll be Boston United. At least that’s who I’m tipping. Though if my efforts at horse betting is anything to go by, a curtain will be drawn around Boston mid-March and a bolt will be shot through their skull. Still, never mind, eh?

Last season Boston United finished mid-table in the Conference North. They were only relegated due to league rules governing finances. The club had to exit administration by May 10, they didn’t, they were relegated. Which is a bit of a kick in the plums for the fans, who are still paying the price for the criminal (literally?) way the club was run by former manager Steve Evans (currently serving a twelve match touchline ban at Crawley Town).

Boston Manager Tommy Taylor has managed to keep the vast majority of his squad together and this alone should ensure the club will be there or thereabouts at the end of the season. And when the only other viable options for promotion are the loathsome Bradford Park Avenue and the loathsomer Leigh Genesis, every neutral will be hoping, praying that it’s Boston who go up at the end of the season.

Unless of course my lot, FC United, can prove themselves up to the task of winning a fourth successive promotion. The bookies, or betties as my Mum hilariously calls them, seem to think we’re up to it. As does our hopelessly optimistic and romantic manager, Karl Marginson. We may have lost three of our best players over summer, but we’ve managed to bring in players of proven non league quality to replace them. And, according to Margy, they’re not here for the money, but for the thrill of playing for FC United.

Which is just as well. We’re broke and barely turning an annual profit. We still average about two and a half thousand a game, so this seems mystifying to many. But the rent at Gigg Lane is crippling us, it’s said to be in the region of £100,000 a season, and until we can build and move in to our own ground we’ll struggle to compete financially with teams even two divisions below us (hello New Mills Athletic!).

The club also appears to be suffering something of an identity crisis. Fans are leaving, fleeing back to Old Trafford, whinging about club politics, changing priorities, and denying vehemently that Manchester United’s European Cup win has anything to do with it at all. This sort of conflict between the fans is all very 2005, and all very boring. Maybe some of Margy’s romanticism is rubbing off on me, but I firmly believe that ‘United’ aspect of FC United has played a huge part in our successes to date.

But not to worry. As I intimated above, I believe football isn’t just about winning (it’s easy to say that after three years of pretty much unrivalled success: ask me again if we’re winless in February) and the fact we’re still here is success enough for me for now. Besides, I’m not sure we can afford to get promoted just yet. It could cripple us.

So that’s about it. The four teams the media and the experts seem to be concentrating on as favourites for the league title. Witton Albion fans may feel hard done by not to be included. Eastwood Town fans even more so. And Marine won their first game 6-2, so who’s to say they won’t be there at the end of the year? I genuinely don’t know who will win the league, and nor can anyone else say with any certainty. Ignorance really does appear to be bliss.

Photo via cn174 from Flickr

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