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El Glosico - Dazed Summer 2023
El GlosicoPhotography Jay Izzard

The strange and ferocious world of British lower-league football

Up and down the country, lower-league football has become Britain’s go-to fix for indulging our national obsession. We travel to the West Country for a grudge match like no other – and discover the beautiful game’s less beautiful enclaves

TextClive MartinPhotographyJay Izzard

Taken from the summer 2023 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

Strolling through the genteel spa town of Cheltenham, watching gilet-clad ladies called Jackie and Jill run their Saturday errands while young couples tuck into the lunchtime deals at Franco Manca, you wouldn’t imagine that a pyrotechnic-charged display of local football aggro was about to go down. But that’s exactly what happened on April 22, 2023 – and it’s happening more and more, at some of the game’s most unlikely flashpoints.

As we arrived that morning, positions were already being taken up. After making our way through the pristine regency-era town centre towards the Completely-Suzuki Stadium, we turn a corner and come across a scene that sits somewhere between a fashion editorial and a grainy Panorama documentary. Outside a pub named The Feathered Fish stirred a few hundred young lads decked out in CP Goggle jackets, tapered trackies and ‘Meet Me at McDonald’s’ haircuts, all clutching plastic pint glasses and gathering with intent. Some had drawn their hoods tight to their faces, others had wrapped Burberry scarves up to their eyes. Anti-surveillance fashion in the heart of middle England. “When you hear the paddock roar, kick the bastards out the door… We Are The Cheltenham Boys,” they scream in the crisp spring air. A split second after the lens cap is removed, one of them tells us to fuck off. The mood is on a low, rolling boil. Real violence seems unlikely, but smalltown bravado is an unknowable force. At that moment, a police snatch squad arrives, some of whom seem to know the boys personally: “Calm down, Aaron, the game’s not even started yet,” I hear one say.

They were here for Cheltenham Town’s match against Gloucestershire rivals Forest Green Rovers – a fixture known to locals as ‘El Glosico’, with bloodied tongue in cheek. The El Glosico is one of the more obscure derbies in English football, with neither side ever troubling the higher tiers of the game, but it’s a fixture endowed with deep, hyperlocal animosity, and fuelled by two very different ideas of what a football club should be.

Later that afternoon, things came to a head. Not knowing the lay of the land, we managed to miss the action – but shaky iPhone footage on Twitter shows a group of young Cheltenham fans carrying a red flare through a pedestrianised precinct, towards a sports bar named the Spectre where the Forest Green fans were camping out. As it transpired, the Forest lot had smoke bombs of their own, and the footage suddenly cuts to a unit of baton-wielding police separating the two groups. “Red Army!” shout the Cheltenham fans, “Green Army!” return the Forest fans. The cops form a hi-vis wall, looking anxious while both sets of fans revel in the stand-off. Eventually, the Cheltenham boys walk off, seemingly frustrated by the police presence – a chant of “Cheltenham, run away!” to the tune of “Three Lions” fired back at them.

Granted, it’s hardly the Belgrade derby, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing you would expect on a Saturday afternoon in one of England’s most desirable towns: two hours from London and home to the famous Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Cheltenham boasts house prices that sit well above the national average. Nor is it the sort of display you’d expect from a League One team from the rural West Country that currently sit 17th in the table, and whose record signing cost somewhere around £50k – but strange and ferocious things are happening in lower-league football.

The English Football League has found itself in an interesting moment. Many clubs are mired in terrible finances, but attendances are very much on the up. The Championship is currently the third most watched league in Europe, and last Boxing Day saw five-year high attendance figures across the Football League. Crowds of 20-30,000 are not uncommon among the bigger sides. These aren’t dizzying figures, but it does suggest a surge of interest in the more pedestrian tiers of the national game.

This being Britain, alongside that comes a rise in trouble. Since the end of the pandemic, there has been an impressive 59 per cent rise in football-related arrests and banning orders, most of which have been issued to men between the ages of 18 and 34. The clubs with the most banning orders are hardly at the game’s top table, with Birmingham City, Millwall and Bolton making up the top three. In a Championship play-off match last season, Nottingham Forest fans invaded the pitch, with one headbutting Sheffield United captain Billy Sharp, an incident that led to an instant custodial sentence. This year, at National League North side King’s Lynn Town, police stormed the terraces after fights broke out against East Country rivals Boston United, and last year at Brackley Town a brawl involving 40 people broke out at the final whistle. In one particularly violent incident, a non-league match against south coast sides Emsworth Town and Coach & Horses Albion saw a player taking off his shirt and throwing punches at fans, while another man threatened him with a fork. In the iPhone age, footage of these incidents is relayed by accounts with names like ‘Footy Fights’ and ‘Terrace Casuals’, racking up huge numbers of likes and shares.

The causes for this uptick in aggro are likely rooted in wider societal issues; from austerity to gig-economy work, boredom and beyond. Yet the game’s authorities, looking for a tabloid-friendly moral panic, are quick to lay the blame on the use of Class A drugs on the terraces. Private security sniffer dogs are now as common a sight at football gates as programme sellers and burger vans, and the matter has even made it before a parliamentary select committee. Peter Houghton from The Football Safety Officers Association recounted one example to MPs in November of last year: “a friend of mine who works at Cambridge United said that when he checked the toilets after a match it looked like a launderette – there was so much powder there.” In response, the government and the Football Association have promised stricter measures, including five-year bans and confiscating passports.

Bad behaviour has long been rife in British football, and it usually ignites hand in hand with socio-economic factors. Not even the birth of the expensive, Americanised Premier League format could stamp it out entirely. But what’s fascinating is that, at this moment, lower league football in particular has become the ideal venue to vent some ill-feeling in the public sphere. It’s moved away from being a staid, trainspotter-style pursuit towards something wild, youthful and excessive. While many of the old tropes remain (full-kit families, old men with badges, mugs of hot beef stock), crumbling stadiums across the country have also become arenas for a physio-chemical catharsis that’s affordable, accessible and achievable. 

The lower echelons of the game have become a cauldron of feeling, and the Gloucestershire derby is a perfect accelerator for this phenomenon

Because while Premier League tickets are obtained through luck, lengthy application processes or sky-high tout prices, lower league football is a much more doable prospect in inflation-racked Britain. At Cheltenham Town, tickets were on sale right up until the match started, at little more than the cost of a night at your local Cineworld. This means that young fans, brought up watching clips of The Football Factory and reels of Napoli’s Curva A Ultras, have found a way to build a new kind of terrace culture, one that’s emboldened by low prices and lax policing (relative to the Premier League, at least). The lower echelons of the game have become a cauldron of feeling, and a portal into the old awayday scene, for better and for worse.

l into the old awayday scene, for better and for worse. The Gloucestershire derby is the perfect accelerator for this phenomenon: a local grudge match that brings ancient village rivalries in line with the wider British culture war. Because while Cheltenham Town are a standard lower-league football team run by a local solicitor and featuring a squad of itinerant journeymen, Forest Green are a very different prospect. Owned by wind-farm magnate Dale Vince – a former New Age traveller in the Spiral Tribe mould who once sported a Richie Hawtin haircut – the club boasts of being the world’s first vegan football club, as well as the first carbon-neutral football club. Indeed, there are no animal products on sale at their stadium, The New Lawn, which has solar panels on its roof and a pitch that recycles water. (Work on a new stadium designed by Zaha Hadid is underway.) Among Cheltenham fans, this is no cause for solidarity, with one terrace chant referring to Vince as a “sad vegan bastard”.

Forest Green hail from the town of Stroud, named by The Times as the best town to live in the UK in 2021 and often cited as the heartland of Extinction Rebellion (Dale Vince is a big supporter of the movement). They also have plenty of cash to throw around. Aside from Vince’s personal wealth, Barcelona defender and fellow vegan Héctor Bellerín is the club’s second-largest shareholder, and their squad this season has boasted players on loan from Chelsea and Manchester United. The New Lawn features an on-site leisure club, unheard of in a league where many clubs play.

As kick-off approached, a corner of the stadium had been commandeered by the same young guys I had seen outside The Feathered Fish. They had abandoned the flares but turned up on war footing; chests out, arms wide in the jumbo-jet position, chanting at full pelt, accompanied by an enormous marching drum. They cheered, they jeered, they bounced on the soles of their feet and sang more songs about vegans. It was part Atherstone Ball Game, part GB News. Still, as someone who’s spent too much time at Stamford Bridge, where pensioners and tourists with Harrods bags are watched over by teams of zealous stewards, it was a nice throwback. A kind of quasi-rural, teenage approximation of Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, a commuter-belt Kop.

The game starts and it goes as everyone expected. Forest are 3-0 down by halftime. From the other end of the pitch, I try to pick out the emotions in the away section. There are a few gallows-humour cheers when throw-ins are won, but plenty of heads in hands and staring listlessly at the concrete terrace floors. With games like this, it’s tempting to ask what the point of it all is. There are a million other things you could be doing with your Saturday, but these poor souls had chosen something akin to ritual humiliation. It was like volunteering yourself to be flogged in the town square.

Forest manager Duncan Ferguson is emanating a similar kind of vibe, open-collared, pacing up and down the touchline, muttering to himself and offering useless claps into the ether. Ferguson is probably one of football’s most folkloric characters; ‘Duncan Disorderly’, the man who served time in Barlinnie Prison and headbutted a fisherman, the ex-Everton and Rangers captain who put two burglars in hospital. Yet here, in a stadium named after a used car dealership, egging on a beleaguered squad of adolescents with G-Wagons, he cuts a broken figure. Football at all levels can be a miserable affair, but nowhere more so than the lower leagues, where embarrassment is so much closer to home. There is no sports media machine to protect you, no solidarity hashtag, just three feet of grass and a hoarding with a scaffolding firm logo on it.

“The lower leagues have kept the soul of the 70s and 80s. We’re not here for the football, which if we’re honest, is crap. We know we’re 17th in the league. But if we’re gonna lose, we’re gonna lose together, if we win, we win together – and that’s the beauty of it” – Rob, 19

In the smoking area at half time, I get talking to Rob, a 19-year-old self-confessed “middle-class Cheltenham fan” who asks that his name be changed for the piece. Rob has followed his team home and away this season. The conversation starts with him telling me about the scenes at The Feathered Fish earlier, how he’d seen four guys go into the same cubicle. 

I ask him about the rivalry with Forest Green. “A lot of it all comes down to location as with most rivalries, but there’s another dynamic between Forest and Cheltenham,” says Rob. “Gloucestershire’s quite an affluent part of the country, but Cheltenham Town has stayed true to its roots… whereas Forest Green has always been inherently middle class. I mean, look at veganism. When’s the last time you saw a working class vegan?”

Rob is an unusual character, a well-spoken yet embittered teenager with a self-hating streak that reminds me of many older fans. “It’s this whole idea of these middle-class people – like Dale Vince – invading something inherently working class,” he goes on. “They want to turn it away from a place where people can blow off steam and into some Hollywood blockbuster. It’s why I hate Forest Green so bloody much.”

Moving away from class war, I ask Rob about his thoughts on lower-league football in general. “The lower leagues have kept the soul of the 70s and 80s,” he says. “We’re not here for the football, which if we’re honest, is crap. We know we’re 17th in the league. But if we’re gonna lose, we’re gonna lose together, if we win, we win together – and that’s the beauty of it.”

Indeed, the Cheltenham fans won together, and Forest fans lost together. In the second half, Forest scored, and their fans celebrated like it was VJ day in Times Square. But it was a futile comeback, and the game ended 3-1. Soon after, the fans spilled out into the edges of town, a keen police presence waiting.

In the days that followed, my attention returned to the machinations of the Premier League: City and Arsenal’s race for the title, the chaos at Chelsea and Tottenham. The football was better than ever, the stories straight out of an Apple TV producer’s dreams, but there was something lacking, a void of real feeling. My own team were in disarray, taken over by a band of real estate cowboys who seem to make their decisions based on social engagements rather than anything resembling sense – yet there seemed to be no place to centre these frustrations. Without a season ticket, I was offered podcasts, Twitter Spaces and long, deluded tactical threads – and what I really wanted was crowds, terraces and pubs adorned with scarves and the signed shirts of long-gone heroes.

In this disconnect between fan and player, club and town, you’ll find the slack that lower-league football is holding up. For growing numbers of people, it provides a local, immediate and affordable way to live out our national obsession. It’s a path to pure experience, whether that’s collective euphoria, or having the shit kicked out of you by the next town over – be that on the pitch or outside The Feathered Fish.

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