BY MARK GODFREY
They say that misery loves company. That’s possibly why Dave Roberts felt compelled to pen this literary invitation for us all to a season following his beloved Bromley FC for their first season in the Vanarama National League in 2015/16. With expectations set very low and disappointment a recurrent thread through his forty-plus years following the Ravens, you’d be forgiven for expecting this to be just another earnest plod through the mundane life of the average non-league fan.
Sure, the hopelessness – and indeed pointlessness – of it all is there, and there’s plenty of it, but through his almost child-like obsession for the club, for facts, statistics and routines – despite being 60 years old – it doesn’t take long to warm to Dave and the motley crew of Bromley fans that act as the supporting cast to this most endearing of books.
Having travelled the world for the best part of the last few decades, Dave and his American wife Liz up sticks from their settled life in the US to give merry-old-England a go. Even though he has returned frequently to visit during his time as an exile, he soon learns that the country he knew as a younger man is very different to the one he left, making him almost as much of a stranger as the missus.
In non-league football – as in life – there are winners and there are losers, and just like real life the majority of us are frequent losers. But what this book does beautifully is affirm that the enjoyment of football isn’t so much about the game or the result, it’s about the journey we, as supporters, take in the process.
While following a Premier League club has lost most, if not all of its charm in this ever branded, corporate soul vacuum of a world, very little – except perhaps the bizarre and regular name changing of quaint old grounds like Holker Park and Hayes Lane – changes. Train tickets to stations and towns that most people don’t know exist; lonely and uncertain walks through out-of-the-way industrial estates; incomprehension at needless crowd segregation.
There is no vitriol in this book, save for some mild irritation at the standard of non-league refereeing and the spiralling costs of rail travel in Britain, and there is seemingly no edge to Dave which makes him and his adventures, which may otherwise seem mundane to the observer, all the more engrossing. And anyway, how can you possibly dislike a man with his own fan club made up of four devotees?
He takes us along at a good pace throughout, living every unexpected win with the right amount of glee and every expected calamity with an equal sense of despair. Bromley’s season, which lurched back and forth from play-off potential to relegation anxiety, eventually settles neatly somewhere on the mediocrity spectrum – where fans of the majority of clubs find themselves come the end of every campaign. To follow Dave (and occasionally Liz) and companions on this countrywide pilgrimage of rediscovery – from the delights of Frank Sidebottom’s statue in Timperley to a Farmfoods in Cheltenham selling frozen bacon – was enjoyable and an acknowledgment of some of my own offbeat experiences as a watcher of non-league football.
Thankfully, the book never strays too far into syrupy nostalgia and poignancy for this love – nay obsession – of Bromley rekindled, even when Dave’s elderly father sadly passes away; a brief moment that I found moving and pertinent given my impending middle age, realisation of vulnerability of my own ageing father who introduced me to football and my infant son, who I hope to pass on my love of the game to one day.
This book compels you to root for Dave, but not because you want Bromley to win for him, but because you don’t want them to change. He probably doesn’t want them to change either. He wanted to reconnect to the thing that had him hooked in his youth before life got in the way, not to some new ‘product’ that would leave him cold and disillusioned. And in that is probably where we would see a lot of ourselves – as sufferers. Glad sufferers.
The 2015/16 season ended in mid-table safety for Bromley – a triumph for them at the highest level they’ve ever reached – the highs far outweighed by the sum of the lows and the forgettables. It’s reassuring to read a book that doesn’t need hype or hyperbole to reflect one’s own appreciation of the absurdity of investing so much time, money and energy in following a game of 22 men kicking a bag of air around a field. I hope, for Dave’s sake, the current season is equally as absurd, pointless and wonderful.
Home and Away: Round Britain in search of non-league football Nirvana by Dave Roberts is available from AMAZON and all good book shops.
Follow Dave on his adventures with Bromley on Twitter @thebromleyboys