Across the Pond—Loving the Lower Leagues

Joe GSenior Writer IMay 26, 2009

LONDON - MAY 25:  Burnley players celebrate victory with the trophy during the Coca-Cola Championship Playoff Final between Burnley and Sheffield United at Wembley Stadium on May 25, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

Across the Pond is a series that offers this Yank's take on major events in sports from Europe and the rest of the world. For the last installment, click here.

How many among us can say that we have a smaller club to support?

Take a moment to imagine a world without Arsenal, Barcelona, Manchester United, Celtic or Juventus. In the absence of those giants, who would you support?

Our own Yoosof Farah is a rabid Gillingham FC supporter. There also seems to be an abundance of Hull City support as well.

This article is inspired by their passion, and the passion of the supporters of small clubs everywhere.

The Big Four in England garner the majority of the media attention and have legions of supporters at their disposal, but the small clubs have all the romance.

At times, a big club can seem like a distant, faceless behemoth, while a smaller club could be comprised of talent from your own neighborhood.

The quality of play might not be the same as we witness at Old Trafford and Anfield every week, but the passion of the supporters and players are the same at The New Meadow as they are at the big stadia.

There's a certain allure to following a club from the lower leagues and these short vignettes are designed to distract interest from the rich clubs and bring football fans back to their roots, if only for a short while.

This is Spinal Tap

I've seen the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap too many times to count. I'd easily place the number above 30, maybe even closer to 50.

In the airport scene, look at the shirt worn by bassist Derek Smalls. It's a Shrewsbury Town kit from the 1980-1981 season.

It's also worth noting that Smalls donned a West Ham cap at various points in the film.

For me, that piqued an interest in smaller and lower league clubs. If these entertainers can pay homage to small clubs, they definitely seemed like something worth looking into.

Garforth Town and...Brazil?

Deep in the English football pyramid lies an outpost of Brazilian footballing flair. Garforth Town AFC sits mid-table in the Northern Premier League Division One North, a mere seven steps below the Premier League. They are a club filled with ambition, aiming for promotion to the Premier League by 2025.

Owner and manager Simon Clifford has long been an admirer of the Brazilian style of play, opening his first Brazilian Soccer School in 1996. His schools across Britain are now teaching 850,000 children, and he has branched out to the US and Australia as well.

Clifford can count Manchester City's Micah Richards as one of the graduates of his schools, and plans on achieving promotion with a complete squad trained in the Brazilian techniques.

But don't think that the infatuation with Brazil ends with merely copying a playing style. No, Socrates and Careca have each turned out for Garforth Town in recent years after being inked to short-term deals by Clifford.

The club has also been linked to Zico, Cafu, Romario and Bebeto.

It doesn't hurt that Clifford managed to convince Lee Sharpe to play for Garforth in 2004, either.

This is all great publicity that could help this club achieve its ultimate goal.

Burnley treats their fans right

This is perhaps the best story I've heard in recent times, a fantastic example of a club putting its fans first.

Before the start of the 2008-2009 season, Burnley offered a unique incentive to their supporters: Purchase a season ticket by Aug. 8, and get a free-season ticket for the next campaign if Burnley were to gain promotion to the Premier League.

Well, Burnley capped off their season with a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United at Wembley, securing promotion to the Premiership.

It's refreshing to see about a club that isn't worried about losing the estimated £2 million that this plan will cost. Can you imagine one of the Big Four offering a deal like that?

Didn't think so.

Thanks to a fan-centric attitude from Burnley, 7,000 season ticket holders will be taking in Premiership football at the Turf Moor for free during the 2009-2010 campaign.

The Giant Killers

The greatest thing about Cup football is the ever-present potential for an upset hanging over the fixtures like a storm.

The single-elimination format of domestic cups has led to some legendary upsets, with the environment comparable to March Madness in the States.

Wrexham has taken part in multiple giant-killings, knocking off Newcastle during the 1977-1978 FA Cup and Arsenal in 1992. Both times, Wrexham was in the Third Division while their opponents were in the First.

In more recent competitions, you might remember the spectacular run of Barnsley. They reached the FA Cup semifinals in 2008 after consecutive victories over Liverpool and Chelsea.

Most Premiership clubs would struggle to replicate that feat, but the Championship side made their way to Wembley.

We're not gonna take it

FC United and AFC Wimbledon are easily two of the most intriguing clubs in the world. It's not because they win loads of major trophies or feature rosters full of superstars. The stories of their origins are what should interest you.

The original Wimbledon FC was a club that had spent many years in England's top flight, but were never really in contention for many major trophies aside from the 1988 FA Cup. The owners felt that if the club were to move away from their London home, it would become a more profitable and thus more competitive venture.

On May 28, 2002, the FA granted permission for Wimbledon FC to move to Milton Keynes, becoming the Milton Keynes Dons.

Naturally, fans were quite upset and started boycotting the club. This loss of support crippled the club and forced it into administration.

But what happened to the fans?

They created their own club, AFC Wimbledon. The supporters of Wimbledon FC felt that the club had severed ties with their fan base, so rather than watch the club's final season at Selhurst Park, they began throwing their support behind AFC Wimbledon during its inaugural season.

Since its inception and thanks to some incredible fan support, AFC Wimbledon has risen from the Combined Counties League (step five in the National League System) to the Conference National, just one step below the Football League.

FC United was formed by a group of dissident Manchester United supporters in 2005. The group was unhappy with the takeover of the club by Malcolm Glazer.

Kris Stewart, the founder of AFC Wimbledon, gave the malcontents advice on starting a club, and the group decided that if 1,000 people pledged their financial support, they would go ahead with creating the new club.

By early July of 2005, the club had received monetary pledges from 4,000 people, giving them £100,000 in the bank.

FC United began life in the North West Counties Football League, nine levels below the Premiership. Three successive promotions saw them reach the Northern Premier League Premier Division, a mere six levels below the Premiership.

To make the beginnings of their existence even more impressive, FC United missed out on the playoffs this season by only two points. Just think, two points away from a chance at their fourth successive promotion after being created in the summer of 2005.

Do you FIFA?

Most football lovers have played a game of FIFA at some point in their lives. I'd be willing to wager that a good portion of us are fanatical devotees to the FIFA franchise, eagerly anticipating the release of the next installment.

I'll admit to re-creating the magic of The Invincibles with the Virtual Arsenal squad, but after awhile, winning trophies with a big club isn't challenging. If you want a challenge, you've got to take a small club and build it into a champion.

I selected Nottingham Forest thanks to their historical ties with Arsenal (where do you think that gorgeous Red and White strip originated?) and set out attempting to win the Champions League in a few seasons' time.

It was definitely challenging, especially when it came to the domestic cups. See, unlike actual managers, FIFA doesn't field weakened sides in the Cup. Virtual Forest had to contend with a full-strength Virtual Chelsea and Virtual Manchester United.

What's the point?

With a greater challenge comes greater reward. It's so much more satisfying to taste victory when you're a serious underdog. That's why Giant Killers have become legendary.

That's why Burnley decided to reward the loyalty of their fans upon returning to the top flight for the first time in 33 years.

That's why fans of Wimbledon FC and Manchester United decided to form their own clubs.

That's why Garforth Town is trying to rule England with a squad of home-grown players.

Find yourself a small club to support, it's loads of fun.


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