As a lad I loved non-league football. I grew up in Northolt right on the outskirts of London. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. But there was Hayes Town FC just down the road, and I loved it.
It wasn’t glamorous. It was a pie and a cuppa kind of place without a hint of a prawn sandwich. It was the kind of place where a geeky teenager could go and be part of something. And by God it was exciting when we scored.
There was also a rich vein of wisdom and acceptance of life’s ups and frequent downs. The downcast writer of Ecclesiastes could have been a seasoned Hayes Town supporter.
It was with all this in mind that I watched BBC One’s wonderful documentary about the Class of 92 and their purchase of Salford City FC.
The documentary follows Giggs, Butt, the Nevilles and Scholes as they take on the daunting task of owning the non-league team where they were born. It is full of rich characters - the star striker who skips a game to go modelling, the foul-mouthed manager who is also a plasterer and dear old Babs in the burger bar.
Players get drunk when they shouldn’t. The manager gets into a rare-up and gets banished to the stands for five weeks. A dog gets on the pitch.
As I watched, I found myself wishing that the Church was more like Salford FC.
For a start the level of volunteering is simply heroic. People love their club and put the hours in. Then there’s the mix of people. I want a Babs in my church. I want people who can bring their dogs. People who have life and who don’t take themselves too seriously.
I just hate it when church gets all pious and po-faced. There’s none of that at Salford FC. I like the fact that people at Salford live with disappointment – one of the problems with some evangelical churches is we are so intent on being happy that we lose sight of the entertaining spills and thrills of normal life for working-class people. And I admire too that the lads from Man U haven’t forgotten their roots.
But most of all, I admired the Class of 92. The temptation would have been to come in and run the club like a business, to run it like the professional outfit they left. Pay a big money manager, bring in some stars.
But no, the lads have left it as a non-league club and don’t interfere (however painful that is for them). The Class of 92 don’t sit in the stand, they get cold with the rest of the fans. Salford’s managers are still part time, the players still like a pint and Babs is still serving burgers (although they have bought her a new pie oven). They honoured the tradition of non-league so as not to spoil what was already there.
I am happy to lead a genuinely messy church at St Cuthbert’s North Wembley. I would rather we were Salford City than Manchester United. I like the cock-ups and the capers. I think that the UK Church would be reborn if we could be more heart-warming, more phlegmatic and realistic and a lot more messy.