When a player comes up against his old team it’s always a special occasion. Old friends, old colleagues, and fans that once adored you – for most players this leads to a mixed bag of emotions. If Torres had scored against Liverpool would he have celebrated? Or would he would have put aside his personal achievement as a mark of respect to a club he was once in love with?
Either way, it seems it’s not easy for footballers to forget their old employers and old fans. A few weeks ago I saw this for myself first hand, not in the Premiership, but at a level where the player’s and the fans have even more of a bond. This was at a game between two non-league teams in the FA Trophy.
In the Premier League, players are god-like idols who are role models to kids and legends to adults. They are kept at arm’s length from the fans, behind barriers, security and TV screens. The closest you can get is a Twitter account, if you’re lucky.
This is the exact opposite for players in the non-league. You haven’t got the razzmatazz and glitz of top flight football, massive modern stadia or the best players in the world.
What you have got is something real, a place where you can smell the Deep Heat as you walk in, where players and fans meet and talk on a weekly basis. Players are exposed at close quarters to fans views and opinions and they don’t have a press officer to help them answer the comments and questions thrown their way.
The match in question was AFC Wimbledon v Woking FC in the FA Trophy. Now this was a big game for both sides – the top prize is a trip to Wembley – but it was also a local Surrey derby between two ambitious teams who desire to rise up the leagues. But my main focus was that former AFC players Alan Inns and goalkeeper Andy Little were returning to play against their former club.
Little started the game in goal for Woking, Inns was on the bench. On announcement of the teams Little and Inns received a good reception from the home fans. I wasn’t sure which way it would go and was pleasantly surprised.
Inns came on as a second half sub. I was in the toilet at the time after a swift half time pint. As Inns’ name was announced the AFC fan next to me said to his friend “oh no”. His friend asked “is this guy good?”, to which he replied “yes, but I remember the last time I saw Innsy. It was at our promotion party where he was drunk and dancing on a table like a nutter”. I can’t imagine too many fans of top league sides can say that.
I was actually surprised at a couple of things. Firstly the way AFC fans paid their respects to players who were now playing for another side, and secondly the actual, genuine like they had for both players. I didn’t hear a boo around the place for either of them. What was even more amazing was what happened after the game.
We were in the bar afterwards and a lot of AFC fans were there. An announcement was made that Alan Inns and Andy Little would be coming out for interviews in front of the AFC fans. I thought this was a bit odd considering Woking had just won the game and these were ex-players.
As the players filtered through to the bar area, Inns appeared and was instantly grabbed by a few fans for a chat. We bumped in to each other and went to the bar where another fan asked for a photo and Inns chatted to them as if they were old friends. After that I left him to it as he continued to walk around speaking to other fans.
Then he was called up on stage and the announcement was met with rapturous applause. He proceeded to give the speech that the video shows below. Later I spoke with Innsy and he said he had a tough time going back to AFC Wimbledon. It was a club he was only at for two years, but was amazingly fond of, and a club he had ‘fallen in love with’. It was the culture of the club, the success he enjoyed (dancing on tables), and the fans. It was hard for him to forget these things.
As I watched him speaking with fans and putting time and effort in with the people he respected, it dawned on me that this was a very special bond. I wonder how many Liverpool or Chelsea fans stood within 5 feet of Torres or any player after Sunday’s game? I remembered how many clapped Torres and how many booed him after all the effort he put in at Liverpool. But this isn’t about Torres and Liverpool, this is about true fans, real players, and real football clubs.
I saw a special thing that Saturday, people taking the time to salute a good servant of the club they love, someone who was still part of the family. More importantly, I realised for the first time how tough it can be for players as human beings to return to former clubs and the emotions involved. But more so how the fans and the players showed what real football should be about. The bond and respect between player and fan, the access they have to each other with the freedom to speak and be trusted to speak. Football at its barest and this is what top flight professional football has forgotten.