With the international break upon us, this weekend sees the return of Non-league Day, that one day per season when, with a clear schedule across much of the Premier League and Football League, people are encouraged to go and sample a game from the flotsam and jetsam of our football landscape. This morning’s Saturday Movie Club, however, is going even further into the bowels of the game with the 2014 documentary Sunday League, made by Hard Lines Productions.
From its multi-millionaires to those who play the game for next to nothing, football is soaked in tropes, clichés and truisms from its very top to its very bottom, and nowhere is this truer than on the park pitches of this country on a Sunday morning. Anybody who is in the slightest bit familiar with the world of parks football will already be familiar with the sight of a slightly hungover man sitting on the shoulders of another slightly hungover man attempting to affix a goal net to a crossbar with mouthfuls of sellotape, or the solitary man walking his dog who has stopped to watch a random game because… well… when you see a football match going on and you’re walking past with nowhere particular to be, what else are you supposed to do?
Sunday League doesn’t shy away from these images, but by holding the gaze of the camera on them for a few seconds longer than we might have expected, it allows us to see them as necessary and understandable parts of the Sunday morning football experience. The makers have stationed their cameras at a handful of matches, and what they find is striking, small pockets of men in their twenties, thirties and considerably beyond who find a part of their identities from this shared experience. They talk about it with good humour and a degree of poignancy, with the Guardian’s football writer Barney Ronay on hand to articulate both the ugliness and the beauty of football at its roughest end.
But it’s in the camerawork that we get to see the true essence of the Sunday football experience. A man pegging nets into the ground has difficulty getting one in, disappears for a few seconds, and returns with a plastic dustbin to either beat the offending peg into the ground and submission or into shattering in several pieces. A goalkeeper recklessly passes a goal kick short across his penalty area as a train passes by behind him. A player in full kit lights up a cigarette whilst speaking to the camera about the game ahead. A manager lays into his team at half-time. A near0fight on the pitch end with the two players in a near-umcomfortable bear hug. It would be easy to dismiss this shots as little more than cliché were it not for the fact that it’s all so familiar. Hundreds of thousands of us have lived this life at some time or other, and it’s almost impossible to crack a smile at such shots.
Wisely, the film makers keep broadly silent, allowing the players, managers and volunteers to tell their own stories, and neither do they shy away from the darker side of it all. The violence gets touched upon, as does the crisis in refereeing, and the film ends on something of a minor key, lamenting the falling numbers of players and the fact that there are so few younger players coming through. As Ronay points out, there is something fundamentally absurd about spending one’s spare time doing something that leaves you almost unable to walk for a few hours every week, and perhaps the remaining Sunday League footballers are a little like living exhibits from some form of football museum. But for now, the Sunday league footballers are still with us, simultaneously finding themselves and losing themselves for a couple of hours every week, and Sunday League distills the essence of this world with skill and wit.