The Club

The Club: Living the dream at the bottom of English football

By Simon Akam

Newsweek Insights, 2015

The ClubThe worrying growth of inequality in the UK over the last 30 years is something that we’ve heard a lot about recently, and that the situation has been replicated in English football is not news to anyone either. Television revenues have enabled the Premier League rich kids to push their salaries through the roof, from £75 million in 1991-92 to £1.87 billion in 2012-13. In 2012-13 the average Premier League club received £60 million in television revenue, while clubs in the fourth tier of English football, Sky Bet League 2, received just one hundredth of that amount. However, despite these historically high levels of disparity, there is still more money in the lower leagues than ever before and this is the world that Simon Akam investigates in The Club.

At League 2 side Luton Town, Akam is given full, behind-the-scenes access to players, facilities, fans and non-playing staff. We get to visit the training ground and meet the club physio, Simon Parsell, who treats players in a portakabin and bemoans the lack of top-quality resources to treat his players. Similar stories are brought forward by the club’s groundsman and Head of Catering; for all their dedication to their roles, there is a frustration regarding the constraints that they face due to limited funds.

There’s little surprising about this so far but the interviews are interesting in themselves and the scenes which Akam describes make for a thoroughly enjoyable read. On the training ground Akam joins in with practice, before quickly falling away when he is unable to keep pace with the athleticism of the League 2 players. In another portakabin, a humorous scene takes place as an electricity meter reader, a Luton fan, overstays his welcome. As Akam notes, ‘the high god of banter’ needs sacrifices. Perhaps best of all is the club’s young data analyst bravely attempting to persuade Luton manager John Still to buy better equipment, battling on in the face of sweary hostility.

In the book we meet some of the players who emerge from a wide range of back grounds. Higher league cast-offs, lower league journeymen, and ex-builders making their way in professional football for the first time; these are the men playing what Akam rather poetically describes as somewhere ‘between the gutter and the stars’. We meet club captain Stephen ‘Sumo’ McNulty and go jeans shopping with Jonathan ‘Smudge’ Smith and Danny ‘Fitz’ Fitzsimmons. In a look at the celebrity status of footballers at this level, we also meet one of the girlfriends, former S Club Junior member Stacey McLean.

Next up for Akam is the social makeup of the club’s support. Luton has a large Asian population on its doorstep and The Club looks at what Luton Town means to them. Alongside the well-known rationale – Asians prefer cricket, prefer to watch matches on TV, don’t like standing in the cold – are some interesting insights. An unknown source suggests that initial racism alienated fans from football over the past decades, and while work has been done since to improve relations, large-scale Asian support would only come when a local Asian player became successful at the club. On the opposite end of the scale, an interview with EDL founder and life-long Luton fan Tommy Robinson makes for interesting reading.

The one small gripe I have with The Club is that though it offers an insightful snapshot of life at Luton Town, it is just a snapshot of lower league life, and not an in-depth study. In fairness to Akam, that would have been beyond his remit here but many issues which he touches on could be the focus of research in their own right. Akam spends just a week at the club in the first instance, returning 6 weeks later for a second trip. Another issue is Luton’s unsuitability as a lower league example. The Hatters missed out on the Premier League by just one season, having been relegated in 91-92. In terms of stature, Luton Town would not be out of place in the Championship, and funds are available to offer some players up to £75k per year. Sadly, Akam’s approaches to Mansfield Town, Hartlepool United, and Morecambe FC, who collectively have managed just one season in the second tier between them (Mansfield in 77-78), were declined.

Ultimately though, The Club is an enjoyable and interesting look inside a lower league football club, and surely a must for any Luton Town fan. In what is a short book, Akam covers a wide range of lower league issues, not least the financial risks being taken by everyone including the players. Many leave secure jobs to embark on what is increasingly a very unstable career as a professional footballer. However, financial remuneration is better than ever before, minor celebrity status is achieved (in the locality at least), and the chance to play every Saturday, ‘somewhere between the gutter and the stars’, is something that most football fans would still do in a heartbeat… wouldn’t you?

John Mottram

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Ian Plenderleith Interview

Having devoured the brilliant Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, I had some questions for author Ian Plenderleith. The kind man that he is, he was all too happy to oblige, even from across the Atlantic. Like the book itself, his answers here are equal parts entertaining and insightful.

1. When did your interest in the NASL begin?

I remember being slightly perplexed by it back in the 70s when Shoot! would do an occasional photo-feature on British players who were in the NASL, and its grown-up sister publication, Soccer Monthly, did a lot of more in-depth features on the league. It was all weird jerseys, strange names and plastic pitches – the UK press always played up that angle. When I moved to the US in 1999, the NASL was like the wayward cousin who’d ended up in jail – no one really wanted to talk about it, because it was perceived as a failure, and in the US no one likes failure, not even glorious failure. There’s a ‘heroes only’ mentality in most US sports coverage.

So anyway, I wrote the odd feature on the NASL down the years, and the more I wrote about it, the more I realised what an under-told story the league was, and how it had been sorely neglected. Almost the only team anyone wanted to remember was the Cosmos, but there was so much more to the NASL than that – so many great stories to be told, and I felt there was an analysis missing of the league’s place in both US and world football history.

2. Was it difficult to find a British publisher for a book about an old American league, even if it did feature a lot of British players?

Surprisingly not. I gave a commissioning editor at Icon half a dozen ideas for football books, and the proposed NASL book was one that he and the several other people at the company really liked. Getting a book published can be a long and frustrating process, but in this case it really wasn’t.

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3. The book includes interviews with a lot of people involved in the league. Were they hard to get hold of and were there people who wouldn’t speak?

There were a few people that I knew from previous interviews, but the Facebook page of the NASL Alumni Association was a huge help – I got in touch with several players that way. They were almost without exception really co-operative and very happy to talk about the league, and then several of them said, “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so, his memory’s much better than mine,” and then they’d give me their number. Pele and Johan Cruyff didn’t return my calls, though…

4. It must have been a mammoth project to put together. Was the research process tricky?

The research was a real pleasure, mainly because I’m the kind of sad case who loves reading old newspapers and football magazines. I could finally point to my stacks of yellowing publications and tell my wife, “See, I knew they’d come in useful one day.” I bought yet more yellowing publications on eBay, and bid on old autobiographies by players like Frank Worthington and Alan Hudson. I did a lot of archival research in Washington DC’s magnificent Library of Congress, and a couple of people loaned me their scrapbooks of cuttings. I spent one winter’s night in a crappy hotel near Minneapolis/St. Paul airport going through three thick scrap books that Alan Merrick gave me, but I had to give them back to him by the next morning before my flight went. It’s hard to believe, but I was sitting there until the small hours with junk food, my laptop, and reams of match clippings from the 1970s, and I was thinking, “Yes, this is the life!”

5. Do you have a favourite NASL team? You do a good job of seeming impartial!

I ended up with a particular soft spot for the Minnesota Kicks – partly because of their incredible rise-and-fall story that I wrote about in Chapter Five, and partly because many of their ex-players were so helpful. When you’re a writer working on a miserly budget you become really grateful towards people who get what you’re doing, and who go out of their way to assist you for no return.

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6. What are your thoughts on Raul signing for the Cosmos? Could it spark a real NASL revival?

I don’t believe that single players signing for teams have that great an effect on a league’s destiny any more. Pelé signing for the Cosmos is the obvious exception, but the actual story of the signing is always much huger than any influence the player can have on the standard of play or the popularity of the league. A player like Raul, at that age, is not going to have a momentous affect on crowds, and he’s probably not going to dominate the play. I think I mention in the book that big name signings are a bit of a lose-lose prospect. If the players don’t perform well, people say they’re past it. If they shine, then you can say that even a has-been can do well in whatever league it is.

As for an NASL revival – that’s already well under way, but only in terms of this being a nascent second-tier league that resembles the old NASL in name only. It’s great, though, that the name and the names of some of the teams have been revived, because it’s a nod to the huge role that the NASL played in football history.

7. It feels like a very exciting time for US soccer. Do you think MLS is going in the right direction?

US soccer has been a fascinating work in progress ever since 1967. It’s always attracted a lot of attention from beyond the US because it’s seen as the great unconquered market in a country that has made its own unique major league sports. MLS has been steadily but unspectacularly chugging in a fairly good direction for the past decade. It’s the antithesis of the NASL, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s survived. But as I point out in the book’s conclusion, that makes it a somewhat less interesting league for now (something MLS is probably quite happy with). It’s at a crossroads now, though. Should it aim for ‘narrative’ signings like Gerrard and Lampard, which are basically marketing moves piggy-backing on the Premier League’s reputation and popularity in the US, or should it look more to the long term and focus on developing young players?

8. Do you feel European attitudes to US soccer are changing, especially after the national team’s strong showing at the 2014 World Cup? Do you think more and more players will choose to head out there, and maybe at a younger age like Giovinco?

I think a lot of European fans and journalists are still very condescending when it comes to US soccer. Their views are poorly informed, or outdated, or both. But the US game should care less about what these people think and concentrate on the structural problems that are holding back the US game at youth and college level. If they can properly tackle that in the next decade, then they will eventually have a frightening amount of talent at their disposal, and they won’t need to worry about being patronised any more.

Could bigger, younger names from abroad start coming to MLS? If team owners put forward enough money, anything’s possible, as long as the league’s centralised rules allow it. Get enough big names and you can charge more for TV rights, and if there’s global interest in certain players then the figures are potentially colossal. Is that the kind of league the US needs right now? I really don’t think so, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. But if it does, then those involved might want to keep a copy of my book handy so it doesn’t all end in tears.