Away from the glitz, the British football fans who fly local flag

AFP| Last Updated: Oct 10, 2014, 10:21 AM IST
Away from the glitz, the British football fans who fly local flag

Aldershot Town may be a world away from the Premier League glamour of English football giants Chelsea nearby, but for the small band of diehards who call its run-down stadium home, loyalty cannot be bought by billionaires or trophies.

Amid the giant flags and banners waved by the hardcore supporters behind the goal on the club`s concrete terraces, fans talk of belonging to a family and not to a brand.

AFP visited the 85-year-old, 7,100-capacity ground as the team, known as "The Shots", took on local bitter rivals Woking in a fixture that is four divisions below the Premier League.

The true fanatics chant their allegiance in the East Stand, a standing terrace for those who enjoy 90 minutes of jumping around and profane singing led by a battery of drummers going by exotic names such as "Rock`n`Roll Steve" and "Elvis".

"Supporting Aldershot has never been about silverware," explained drummer Ben Blundell at half time. "I feel one with the club, I feel I`m wanted here, I`m part of the family."

Shots head coach Andy Scott told AFP: "When it`s a small attendance, everyone knows everyone else.

"They drink in the same pubs and they stand in the same place and it becomes a gang that gets together and becomes one in their voices."Any tragedies in the tight-knit community are felt by all.

When East Stand fanatic Steve Chapman, 33, a Gulf War veteran, committed suicide shortly after Christmas 2011, he was honoured at the club`s next home game with a minute`s silence.

His former East Stand comrades sang a lengthy rendition of "There`s only one Stevie Chapman," an honour usually reserved for star players.

A touching tribute to Chapman can still be found in a small but well-tended memorial garden for fallen Shots located behind the main stand.

Chapman was one of many soldiers in Aldershot, the home of the British army -- even the nearby corner shops are run by former Gurkhas, Nepalese-born British soldiers.

As their shops struggle to survive in the age of giant supermarkets, local football clubs also face an existential threat from globalisation and the dominant glamour of the Premier League.

Aldershot were only saved from going out of business last year when they were bought by a consortium headed by local businessman and philanthropist Shahid Azeem, who made his millions in computers.

In total, seven leading non-league clubs have either entered administration or have been wound up over the last five years.

However, as with the rise of pop-up shops, craft brewing and the resurgence of independent record shops, a new generation of football fans are discovering the rewards of localism. 

"You feel you`re more connected to the players and the fans are much more loyal," explained 15-year-old Alfie Caudwell in the beer garden at The Crimea Inn.

"There`s a much better atmosphere, lots more chanting. I`ve been to Stamford Bridge and they don`t sing much," he added, comparing the Recreation Ground to Chelsea`s bastion.

"I can have a chat with my favourite centre-forward out there, not a problem," added drummer Blundell.

"You wouldn`t even be able to shake Didier Drogba`s hand," he said of the Ivorian star player for Chelsea.

"Our support makes a big difference," said Martin Choularton.

"The money we put in the turnstiles helps bring the players in," he said, referring to the gates at the stadium.

"We are the hub of the community," chairman Azeem told AFP in a post-match interview on the sacred turf.Tribal unity is sharpened by well choreographed shows of hatred for whomever happens to be on their patch this week, but an especially hot reception is reserved for neighbouring clubs.

So with sparks set to fly for the game of Woking and with police on edge, supporters are kept apart by a "no-man`s land" inside the stadium.

Uniformly dressed in the denim, designer shirts and pristine white trainers favoured by British football fans since the 1980s, the hardcore rivals trade inventive insults and abuse rival goalkeepers.

"There`s an inherent need to have rivals to focus hatred on," explained Geoff Pearson, an expert in football crowd behaviour. "It adds the value of what that club means to them." 

After a hard-fought defeat, it was an especially despondent set of fans that trudged out through the exit gates and under a banner imploring: "See you at the next game".

For the fans, this is a matter of family duty and civic pride. For Aldershot Town, and hundreds of small clubs like it around the country, it is a matter of survival.