AFTER a morning at the Liverpool Academy in Kirkby watching the Under-18s with Jürgen Klopp (well, ok, not WITH Jürgen Klopp) it was a short drive through the West Lancashire countryside to sunny Southport and the catchily-titled Merseyrail Community Stadium. I even managed to stop in a farm shop on the way. It’s living that.
I picked up Atkinson with the news that I’d bought some posh pies, which I hoped would counter my other news that I’d met a lad that morning from Southport who had assured me the Sandgrounders were rubbish. Not that we were expecting much, anyway. We had already looked at the table to see that Southport, along with that day’s opposition, Torquay United, were firmly towards the bottom of the league with the lowest number of goals scored in the division, the National League.
I fancied Southport as soon as I put my postcode into the handy “find a local non-league game” thing they produce for Non League Day. Southport always seem like a proper football club to me, playing in a proper-looking stadium. Formed a full 11 years before Liverpool, they were a founding member of the Third Division North in 1921 and reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup in 1931, only to get walloped by Everton.
They remained a Football League club right up until 1978, when they were ‘voted out’ of the league in favour of Wigan Athletic. It’s funny how these things work out. Apparently the vote couldn’t have been closer. Since then Wigan Athletic have played Premier League football and won an FA Cup. Southport very much have not.
After a few years out of it, Southport are playing their sixth consecutive year in the top division of the non-league pyramid. They are relative minnows of it, however, finishing four of the last five seasons in the bottom seven. Many fans feel that with four teams now dropping out of the division at the end of the season that this year might be their last in the run.
It’s a strange division really, with clubs with greater ambitions and wealthy backers meeting others just trying to survive week to week. The club at the top of the division are apparently paying a striker £2,500 a week. Southport can’t begin to compete with that.
Not that there were too many glum faces as we rocked up to Haig Avenue and straight into the bar under the Grandstand. It’s a cliche that people are friendly at non-league football, but I can’t help it if it’s true. I hadn’t been in the door 10 seconds before someone asked if I thought “Port” were going to win. I had to be honest and say I didn’t have a clue.
We had only been in 20 seconds before Atkinson had managed to flirt with a middle-aged barmaid. But then again he manages that anywhere. A second gentlemen soon moans to me that it is too easy to get served, suggesting a low turnout. “You couldn’t move in here when we played Tranmere,” he tells me, a game that attracted 2,827 through the turnstiles.
There are, in fact, 1,100 people in the ground for the game, 200 less than the last home game against Grimsby. But not that bad considering they lost that game 4-0 and Torquay only brought about 50 because it’s bloody miles away.
The ref started the game early, so it was barely 3pm, and me and Neil were still messing about deciding if we were going to stand in front of a barrier or behind it, when Torquay opened the scoring from a corner. They remained on top for the next 20 minutes, passing it around well. Their number seven, Louis Briscoe, was particularly eye catching, and not just because he has a physique closer to a Rugby League player than a footballer.
Luckily for Southport though, the early Torquay confidence, or possibly new manager effect — player-boss Kevin Nicholson took over last month — started to fade and the Yellows grew into the game. I say that, but they didn’t create a chance of note all half. By grew into it, I mean they crossed the halfway line with the ball and put a few crosses in. But even that had looked beyond them first 20.
The home crowd seemed to sense that trying to get more out of their players was pointless, so they started shouting at the referee instead, possibly in the vain hope he might get sick of it and give Southport a penalty. There were howls of derision when he didn’t book Torquay players for a string of fairly innocuous challenges. Desperate times and all that.
At half-time everyone in the ground buys a pie, and I feel a bit bad for spending my money elsewhere. They look good as well, although strangely seem to come with two pieces of bread as standard. The Pie Shop is called Licensed to Grill, which works well as a pun even though the pedant in me wants to ask how long they grilled the pies for.
For the second half, we move to the side of the pitch to a stand that is either sponsored by a scaffolding company or is just actually a piece of scaffolding. Southport go more direct after the break, which is slightly disappointing from an aesthetic point of view but understandable as they threaten to get some joy out of the game.
They have a striker who can hold it up, and starts to win some fouls, but don’t seem too sure what to do next. Torquay take their number seven off for a lad who can run, and try to play on the counter. Southport move their right winger to full back in a move that has Neil purring.
Southport eventually hit the post but considering Torquay went into the match with the worst defensive record in the league, their goalkeeper is scandalously underworked. By stoppage time, most of the crowd have given up and wandered off. But not before all confirming to each other that they will be there for the Chester game tomorrow.
Any suggestion that I might them join diminished when I realised I’d picked up a parking ticket outside. No such thing as welcoming Non League Day to the good people at Sefton Borough Council.
I was very interested in how the other lads had got on, even with Heaton gloating every time a Bootle FC goal went in while I watched the Southport lads toil.
I read with interest that Robbo said he could “see why” lads who he knew had abandoned the Premier League and gone “all in” on Non League, but I don’t share that emotion.
I enjoyed my day out at Southport, just like I had with Marine the year before but very much as an outsider looking in. A tourist, if you like. The lads and lasses who go every week, who wear the scarves and make the banners, it’s their football club, not mine. Their community, not mine. My home is Liverpool, and my football team is Liverpool and it’s hard to imagine, for better or worse, either never being the case.
It would be interesting to see if a non-league football club within the city might change this feeling. Talks are ongoing and progressing on a City of Liverpool Football Club, AFC Liverpool retain the wish to find a home within the city boundaries and there are murmurings of South Liverpool FC having another proper go.
But right now I feel I need the stress of another football team as much as I need the stress of another wife.
That’s not to say non-league football can’t be enjoyed — not everything has to be all or nothing. I hope to get down to Bootle FC at some point, having already played on the pitch. I’ll even go to Prescot Cables one week if Robbo is getting a round in.
It’s cheap. It’s a laugh. You get to shout. It gets you out the house. I’ll do it again.
But for the real Southport supporters ‘some point’ is tomorrow. After the game, their supporters group, Trust in Yellow, held a race night in the same bar we started our afternoon.
Many of the players attended, showing the togetherness that exists at this level, and they raised over £600. These are the people whose hard work and dedication keeps a club like Southport going when the rest of us walk away.