Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward 96

Alternative title: what’s the point of football?

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Father Christmas is making his list and checking it twice; Boris Johnson is writing out this year’s quiz questions and probably not checking the answers; and BBC Sport are readying that graphic that shows mad Boxing Day results in the 60s. This time of year also brings round one of the most hotly anticipated sporting fixtures in the calendar. No, not England’s quadrennial 5-0 defeat down under. I, of course, mean FA Trophy Day.

The Gulls have been drawn against Tonbridge Angels – one of Kent’s finest football clubs named after a divine entity – and the announcement was met with the usual array of social media apathy and self-righteousness that we’ve come to expect. The FA Trophy has come to occupy a specific place in the mind of Yellows fans. A sort of weary, gloomy, I’ll-go-if-we’re-at-home-and-I’ve-absolutely-nothing-else-on-and-the-weather-is-ok-and-I’ve-done-all-my-Christmas-shopping-and-I-want-to-get-away-from-the-family attitude has settled –an attitude that does a huge disservice to the value of the competition.

First, a concession. I accept and understand that there’s nothing glamorous or especially exciting about a day out in Tonbridge, even less so when we’re being advised against non-essential travel. I’m not even going myself, thanks partly to Chris Whitty’s advice, partly to a tube strike, and partly to the fact that the following day I’ll be spending six hours on a train so could probably do without a nine-hour round trip from Manchester in the leadup. But something I will not concede is that we’re too good for this tournament, or that it’s a waste of time, or that it’s a drain on resources, or that it’s anything other than a cup that Torquay United should be trying to win. Not just this year, but every year that we’re cursed enough to be a non-league club.

We’re in this competition because we deserve to be, because we’ve had years of mismanagement, a tiny tiny dose of misfortune, a few missed penalties, and almost literally thousands of misplaced passes and tonnes of misplaced hope in footballers who have not been good enough. Let’s not pretend that it’s anything other than embarrassing that Torquay Untied Football Club, who spent over a century outside the non-league, qualify for the FA Trophy. The vast majority of my Torquay-supporting life has been spent outside the Football League and it embarrasses me that I have to explain to friends from around the country that my football club is in the fifth tier of English football. But we’re here. We’re at Tonbridge this weekend. If we’re too big for this tournament –which we should be, but we’re not – then the best way to prove that isn’t to piss on it, or put the kids out, or do a Chesterfield and pretend we can’t raise a side, or look on scornfully as other Conference fans have a great laugh. No, it’s to win the thing, it’s to piss it.

I have a better point than this, but I’ll save it. First I’ll make the cliched ones, in which I believe there to be some truth. If you ignore the fact that they’re horrible turns of phrase akin to corporate, hyper capitalist bollocks, statements like “winning is a mentality”, “winning is a habit”, and “winning builds momentum” are sound ones. Certainly, their opposites are true. Torquay fans know as well as anyone that if a team becomes accustomed to losing – or accepting defeat – it becomes very hard for that same team (with the same manager) to turn that momentum around. So even if you can’t be arsed following the game this weekend, I will resolutely stand against the idea that defeat is in any way a positive (more so when it’s to a club from a league below).

There is also no sense, as far as I can see, in the idea that the trophy distracts from the league. Sometimes, teams do really badly in the league and win the trophy (see York in 2017), sometimes they do really well in the league and win the trophy (see Harrogate in 2020). Sometimes they do middlingly in the league and win the trophy. There is no obvious negative correlation between league and cup performance. But forget all this. It’s all nit-picking really. I’ve just taken a sword to a few straw men. This whole conversation can be solved by asking ourselves what we think the point of football is. It’s absolutely valid if you think, as a Torquay fan, the point is a relentless pursuit of points and clambering up the table and leagues and that success in the Conference and further should be our only aim. I get it, but I disagree. Football is so much more than that. When you look back on your life, you’ll not remember points totals or ruthless 3-0 December dispatches of Aldershot at home or even heart-breaking late equalisers by clubs that really should know better. You’ll remember experiences. Big days out. Not details but feelings, emotions, time with family and friends.

Thirteen years ago I had my first one of those days – the FA Trophy final at Wembley. The game was shite and the feeling of defeat – as a nine-year-old – was devastating. I recognise that, if I went to that game now, I’d have just gone and sighed and got some cans for the train home. But that’s because I’ve experienced subsequent footballing trauma that outweighs it. At the time, being at Wembley, watching my team, was almost otherworldly. But my better memory comes a couple of months before that. My old man had travelled to York for the semi-final second leg. A 1-0 defeat was sufficient to see us through on aggregate, and I remember my dad calling home and telling us that a) he’d missed his train and b) we were going to Wembley. I sprinted around the house. Elated. It was, as far as I could see, the biggest thing in the universe.

And I think that’s what the point of football is. The hope, the promise of joy. And I think about today’s nine-year-old Torquay fans. I think about today’s 14-year-old Torquay fans. It’s feasible that, due to the restrictions at Ashton Gate, they’ve never had a big day out like that. Never had the feeling of a final, the feeling of seeing their little club in a big stadium, the feeling of expectation and hope and gut-wrenching disappointment that I felt in 2009. There’s plenty of good to be said for traipsing up and down the shitholes of England following the Gulls in the Trophy – I love it and I’ll do it for as long as I can and it’s another great positive if The Trophy on which my word count on which won’t allow me to elucidate – but what’s more important is those youngsters. To them I say no. No, I won’t tweet “ah just rest Asa and Mox and give the youngsters a go.” No, I won’t sit back and allow people to slag off this fine competition. No, I won’t accept a tepid exit to Wrexham. No, I won’t accept a tepid exit to a team far worse than Wrexham. No, I won’t consider it a weekend off from TUFC Radio and do some Christmas shopping instead. No, no, no. I want to win the thing.

The FA Trophy can mean something, if you want it to. It can mean a great deal. It can mean hope, glory, excitement, success (for god’s sake, when else are Torquay going to win anything? Literally anything?), joy, devastation, a young lad or lass waking their parents up at 4am asking if it’s time to get on the coach to London yet. That is all, I’m afraid, far more important than Yeovil away. That is all, I’m afraid, the whole point of football itself.

COYY – Matty


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