This article originally featured in Issue 19 of The Football Pink
In a run-down corner of South London ‘exists’ a very real, very punk, very fan-owned non-league club called Streatham Rovers. ALEX STEWART braved the Ultras, pyrotechnics and gaudy banners to find out more.
Streatham Rovers’ ground is a hard place to find. It’s not indexed on Google, due to the club’s inconvenient attitude towards online privacy; the maze of terraced houses that surrounds the small, poorly-lit pitch and tumbledown stands almost invites one to get lost. I eventually find the Greyhound Lane stadium, tucked behind a Lidl down an alleyway. It’s an odd place to find the warm, beating heart of lower league football, but Streatham Rovers, who play in the Surrey & Sussex League (known as the Xtermin8 Rat Poison Football League due to its current sponsors), are apparently just that. I decided to head down to Rovers to find out if their reputation was deserved, and just what it means to turn out for a side in the Xtermin8 Rat Poison Football League.
My journey coincides with a home fixture against Beddington Sewage Treatment Works FC. It’s mid-January, biting cold; even a generic meat-flavoured hot drink, slick and oily in a polystyrene cup, doesn’t furnish me with the necessary protection from a chill wind that whips around the Lidl and runs straight through the Greyhound and into my bones. The Joe Beringer stand, where I’m huddled (named after the club’s first U.S. born player, who tragically died in a chimney-related accident while dressed as Father Christmas), is a mess of cracked concrete, cigarette butts, and jagged, plastic chairs. Despite new sponsors Herod Eviction Services pouring literally tens of money into the club, the overall feel of the place is dilapidated and mildly depressing. That is, until, the match kicks off.
Immediately, the chanting starts. Much of it is too offensive to repeat here and seems split between what I can only describe as hard-left and even harder right politics. The notorious supporters’ group, the Authento-Brigade, unfurl their newest banner, a 60ft long, crowd-funded eyesore that features the words ‘Lest We Forget’ emblazoned across the silhouettes of some Lancaster bombers, and bears the legend ‘Diane Abbott Haters’. There are pyros, a few tossed pints, and midway through the second half, a small child runs onto the pitch and kicks a Beddington player in the ankle. She’s dragged away by a steward, flicking V’s. The crowd rises as one to chants of “Taff Goose’s green and purple army!” It doesn’t scan very effectively, but it’s spine-tingling.
Rovers, whose authenticity is worn like a pulsing, bloodied ox heart on their sleeve, has nonetheless had it questioned by some. An internet rumour, started several years ago by persons unknown, suggested that the club was simply a sophisticated “art prank”, much like Dulwich Hamlet pre-2010. Indeed, this has been seized on by Rovers’ most controversial fan-group, the Pteranodon Ultras, who watch “matches” “played” by Streatham Rangers on the fictional club’s Twitter feed, often while actual Streatham Rovers games are being played in the background.
The Rangers, whose colours are yellow and pink, were the creation of a disaffected Rovers fan fed up with the ‘hipsterisation” of football led by people like Tom Cullen, a 27-year-old digital creative, who acknowledges: “If there are 1,200 people here on a Saturday, probably 200 look like they could have walked straight out of Goldsmiths.” The real Rovers’ politics and social situation are, indeed, confusing. While some, like the Pteranodon Ultras, feel the club is losing its identity, others are drawn to it as a bastion of #AMF. One fan told me that he had eschewed local rivals Dulwich Hamlet after he felt they had begun to lose their way. “I started [following] Streatham Rovers at a time when I was becoming disillusioned with the direction of Hamlet and, having put so much effort into the club, there was a sense of wanting to own my labours, to not see them get sucked into a messy property development and lifestyle fluff article black hole.” Lifestyle fluff is in short supply at the Greyhound Lane stadium – it’s gritty, real, at times unnerving; there’s no way this would make a Time Out feature on the best places to watch football if you’re under 30 and work in content creation. And it’s all the better for it.
The game finishes 2-1 to Rovers, whose match-day programme had promised “progressive football, played progressively” – they weren’t joking either, as the myriad slick passing moves and positional play impressed home fans and this neutral alike. After the match, I dawdled in the car-park, waiting for the Rovers club committee chairman Derek Connor and supporters’ group organiser Steve Carver, who had promised to chat to me about the club, its notorious fan groups, and its aim of reaching the Premier League “within 10 years through an application of business ingenuity and tactical creativity”, as Connor WhatsApp’d me before the match.
I’m just giving up hope of meeting them when a bright pink van screeches to a halt next to me. What I’m about to describe marks perhaps the most terrifying experience of my 35 years of life and good few months of football blogging. Two burly, masked men sporting ‘Enya Fans 4 Communism’ t-shirts leap out and bundle me into the van, placing a hood over my head. As the van lurches and weaves its way through what I can only assume are the back streets of Streatham, I try to focus on my breathing, to stay calm, and to remember every detail for when I come to report this to the police. I’m dragged out, hoisted up what I think is a staircase, and the hood is pulled off. I’m in a damp, white-washed room, which has a large pink and yellow banner pinned to the wall. The taller of the two, though there’s not much in it, shouts at me, calling me an imperialist running dog of the mainstream media. I point out that I’m actually working for The Football Pink, and the chromatic overlap seems to resonate. It dawns on me that I have been kidnapped by the Pteranodon Ultras.
The taller man states that he will speak to me on condition of anonymity, which seems superfluous as he’s wearing a balaclava; I agree. The man tells me he is engaged in an “an extremist, somewhat atomised version of fan ownership”, that Streatham Rangers has been created as a satirical comment on modern football generally, and Streatham Rovers especially – he doesn’t offer any explanation for this stance against Rovers, though. Intrigued, I press him, asking him how Rangers is satirical – it is perhaps also political? “It's definitely satire. Have you read the David Squires bullshit rodeo cartoon? If I can combine that with Brass Eye, I'll be very happy. And yes – it's very political, very left wing.” He goes on to describe himself as “a non-linear Kremlin-controlled propaganda operative.” Such is my fear, I simply nod as if I understand what that means. I ask whether there’s something lost in supporting Streatham Rangers, a team that doesn’t exist, as opposed to Streatham Rovers, which does. “Yes, it does lack something. There's been no moment of ritualised ecstasy that you'd get from a last-minute winner in a big game.” He stops, ponders a moment. “I have wondered if there's ways to randomize matches using a Football Manager type game engine, and broadcasting matches live. Could that build up a following of genuine supporters?” I’m about to answer, but the audience has come to its end. I’m bundled back into the van and dropped off in the Lidl carpark a short while later.
After an experience like this, it’s hard to know how to finish a piece. My trip to the Greyhound was raucous, invigorating, the football played by Rovers, at times, sublime. But my meeting with one of their ‘fan’ groups has left me shaken and confused. As football becomes increasingly performative and commercial, is football the sine qua non of a football club anymore anyway? Have Rangers somehow unlocked the future of the game, for some fans at least, in which the club’s soul is not on the pitch but is, instead, in the imagination of the fans who breathe life into a fictional creation? And can Streatham Rovers, for all their determination and the spirited leadership of Goose and his backroom staff, ever really compete with that? They occupy a squeezed middle, sandwiched between the glossy, commercial giants of the higher reaches of the sport and the subversive, authentic-but-unreal match-day experience of Streatham Rangers. Maybe there’s just no more room for the sort of real football served up by the likes of Streatham Rovers, with their chants and smoke grenades and garish kit.
But, until that sort of football finally dies, I for one will be heading back down to the Greyhound again. In a world where most of football seems consumed by securing increasingly abstruse commercial partnerships or selling of their grounds to make room of unaffordable, definitely-not-social housing, there’s something to love about the punchy South London club and its angry, old-school attitude. Streatham Rovers is real, in every sense of the word.
The author would like to thank members of the Streatham Rovers’ supporters trust for their assistance in this piece.
ALEX STEWART - @AFHStewart
Keep abreast of events down at Greyhound Lane Stadium by following the Streatham Rovers Twitter account @StreathamRovers