Football Dies A Little Bit

“There’s no Smith or Jones in the team is there?” a squat, balding, Reebok-classic wearing Dagenham fan said to his friend while nudging him in the ribs. It was the 79th minute and Chuckwuemeka Aneke had just replaced Oguzhan Ozyakup, introduced over the tannoy system with a slight pause after ‘Chuck…’ just to make sure all names were pronounced correctly.
For those who attended Victoria Road on Wednesday night to watch Dagenham & Redbridge take on an Arsenal XI, you would have been pleased with the value of a £10 entry fee. There was plenty of pass and move football. Surprisingly, just as much of it came from The Daggers who I’ve been watching since being a Ryman Division side, and I know they enjoy the odd long ball.
The comment from the comedian beside me didn’t ruin the night, nor was it too malicious, but it spoke volumes about who we think is and isn’t English. Was Chuck a foreigner to this one Dagenham fan because of his long name, one that isn’t even that hard to enunciate? According to his profile page he was born in Newham, London. To some though, I guess Chuck is about as extraordinary as eating jellied eels is to others.
Looking at the Arsenal team there were plenty of black boys, all fast and powerfully built. Roarie Deacon came on as a substitute to score the winner, leaving Damien McCrory for dead before cutting in and squeezing home from the edge of the box. Without knowing his name, which I presume falls into the Smith and Jones category (Deacon is easy enough to pronounce) was this just another outsider clogging up the way for English progression? To this Dagenham fan, was every black boy playing an outsider?
I suppose Smith and Jones were present in the form of Mark Randall and Rhys Murphy. Despite his misunderstanding of the fact that people with African names can be English, our syntax-troubled Dagenham friend raises a good point. Today, the attempt to keep alive my Sunday League football team has ended, as the search for my own Smith and Jones proves futile. Taking on my final duty to call off training, all pre-season friendly matches and pull-out of the Essex Combinations League, football as I know it died a little. Nobody it seems wants to play football.
We say we love football in this country, but do we truly love it? Back in my day, at the birth of the Premier League, every evening after school was spent over the park, as were Saturdays and Sundays. Take a look today and unless it’s organised very few kids are kicking the ball around. Instead Smith and Jones are stuck up in their accessorised bedrooms getting all the entertainment they need from computer games, social internet sites and television.
Now, maybe it’s a product of living in the city, or smaller still, in Barking, at the east end of the District line. You will always see black boys in large groups taping old nets with holes in to rusty white goal posts. Every Saturday, without fail, friends of mine of African descent (with names like Chuckwuemeka) gather to play football. It’s always a heated and passionate affair. Arguments in African tongue are mandatory. So are drawn out discussions over tactics and team positions. Expect to play four matches in a row, and if after three you’re thinking of slacking off then anticipate a bollocking. It’s a testament to Africa’s love for football and England’s adoration for its professional leagues that keeps afloat the interest.
I can only offer my observations. The city is a cauldron of all races and is the obvious greeter to foreign faces, so it’s no surprise to see mass games between people of far-off heritage. The sad part is that not so many are encouraged to play in local football leagues, something else I’ve noticed. Perhaps this is because of the old tradition that Sunday park football has always been a white working-class phenomenon.  From my experiences, generally, it remains that way.
Still, it’s time that Arsenal were recognised for promoting football for all, not being smirked at just because somebody’s name is a little strange or a mouthful to pronounce. Arsenal have always been criticised for preventing the growth of the English national team. After an appalling World Cup, ironically, the nation is now looking towards Arsenal for the next golden generation as the likes of Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs turn heads. Call it coincidence, but with Arsenal’s policy on equality it’s always been a possibility, perhaps just not as likely. Parity means chances for everyone, including English boys.
There are plenty of people like myself who try hard to keep grass roots football alive and fail. The laziness of our youth is one thing that can kill it. Another reason is work commitments, half the reason why my team had to say no to training. I’ve also attended Arsenal matches with people who own a season ticket yet lack any real football knowledge which many of us pride ourselves on. Many people like to be associated with football for fashion reasons, but neither play it or fully understand the tactics of the game. Being seen in the official Arsenal kit is the classic trademark of this group.
A little bit of football died for me this morning, so it’s time to recognise the direction in which it’s moving. Expect to see the likes of Chuckwuemeka Aneke gracing the national team in the future. Expect to see the deterioration of grass roots football unless something more is done to encourage kids to play. Much might depend on weather or not England are successful in their bid to host the World Cup in 2018. Smith and Jones, we need your help!

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