“Get up number 10, you useless fat caaaant. And try passing the facking ball to one of your own players next time. Wanker.”
Poor number 10 was spread-eagled on the sodden artificial grass. He’d just been flattened by a huge centre-half, who’d barrelled into him as he attempted an ambitious cross-field pass. Sympathy from the spectators was in short supply. As he gingerly got to his feet, he glanced over at the stand, rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head before sloping back to the centre of the pitch to re-join the action.
“Yeah, piss off.”
The disgruntled Harlow Town fan responsible for this colourful tirade of abuse had clearly not taken on board the message displayed on a poster next to the food stall. “This is a family club. Please moderate your language”. But the stoical reaction of number 10 (aka James Smith) suggested that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about such name-calling. Not that Smith was even remotely fat. He was also, by some distance, the best player on the pitch. But this is football and football fans are rarely rational when it comes to dishing it out, even to their own team’s players. In fact especially to their own players.
Now it’s one thing to yell abuse in a crowd of 30,000, when a lone voice will usually be drowned out by the general hubbub. But when you’re one of only 182 paying customers your voice tends to be heard by everyone. Including the object of your ire on the pitch.
I was in Essex at the grandly-named Harlow Arena, where the local team Harlow Town were taking on local rivals Romford in the Ryman Isthmian League North Division. It’s a world away from the millionaires of the Premier League but the passion for the game among the players, fans and officials is still there – in fact it’s probably even greater. You really need to have a zeal for the game to follow or take part in it at this level, because you’re certainly not there for the glory.
Harlow Town have a long, but largely unremarkable history. Founded in 1879, the club has undergone a variety of mergers, takeovers and name changes over the years. There have been moments when they looked like they might cease to exist altogether: in 1992/93 they dropped out of football after the league shut down their dilapidated old stadium.
But there’s been the odd moment in the spotlight too. In 1980 the Hawks went on an FA Cup giantkilling spree, knocking out first Southend United and then Jock Wallace’s Leicester City, Gary Lineker and all, before eventually losing narrowly to Watford in the fourth round. In 1966, Harlow played a friendly against the Uruguay national team, who were staying at a hotel in the town during their preparations for the World Cup. The South Americans won the game 6–1. A couple of years later, Benfica prepared at Harlow’s ground for their European Cup final against Manchester United.
In October 2008, Harlow moved out of the old Sportscentre ground – their home since 1960 – into a new 4,000 capacity stadium at Barrow Farm. In 2013 it became the Harlow Arena, complete with a new “state of the art” (whatever that means) 3G (whatever that means) pitch. I’m firmly of the luddite view that football should be played on real grass, but the reality is that the artificial surface allows it to be used by local clubs, not only providing income for Harlow but also helping to cement its role as part of the community.
The match itself started well, with two early goals, one for each team. But it quickly went flat – the highlight of the first half being the rainbow that appeared like a multi-coloured version of the Wembley arch over the stadium. Harlow eventually ran out 3-1 winners, much to the delight of the noisy home fans on the terracing in the Jack Chapman stand. Needless to say, Mr Angry remained unimpressed. His verdict? “Load of crap.” But will he be back for the next home match? “‘Course I bloody will. Never miss a game.”