In The Bottom Corner, author Nige Tassell casts light on the non-league echelons of English football and explores the cast of characters involved in keeping afloat the clubs that live and die by individual results. Through this romanticised pallor, the reader is brought into a world underrepresented in slick, mainstream football media—a world that exists below that much vaunted line of professional demarcation, yet seems to actively push against it to remain apart.
Two narratives are presented in depth. Bishop Sutton, cellar dweller of the Toolstation Western League Division One, can barely muster a team to avoid the ignominy of a winless season. Tranmere Rovers (“a star-crossed football club that perpetually finds new and painful ways to kick its fans in the gut”), oh-so-close to a Premier League berth some 25 years ago, attempts to return to the professional league on the first try. No slickly crafted, feel-good tropes of miraculous comebacks and last-minute winners abound here. Instead, these two narratives serve to show just how tumultuous the going can be in non-league football, and how nothing is guaranteed amidst the turgid play of part-timers slugging away at each other for a shot at individual glory at the professional level.
In between these narratives and over ten fascinating chapters, characters emerge that provide shape and substance to non-league football. A Philippines international captain in the twilight of his career. A striker trying his best to get (back) into the national Gibraltar setup. A reluctant goal machine (“I’ve put eighty balls in the net”) who is also restricted in movement due to a driving ban. A young Sierra Leonean and Chelsea U-19 castoff looking for his place in football. Such vignettes serve to highlight the “tension between collective ambition, between team and self, is omnipresent, no matter what level”.
Only in the muddy scrabble of non-league could there be a motley bunch. Coaching staff and fans are well represented, of course, in the pages of The Bottom Corner. So are well-meaning footballing anoraks steeped in the glory of ‘groundhopping’ (“blokes who are forty-five onwards. We’re all trainspotters or ex-trainspotters), as well as the entrenched volunteers such as those at Salford FC refusing to move their food stalls despite Gary Neville’s insistence. Rarely is there disaffection amongst these types, and when there is, something glorious comes out of it—the formation of FC United of Manchester conceived at a series of curry houses comes to mind here.
Where there is glory, however, there is also tragedy. The deaths of two Worthing United players at Shoreham while commuting to a game bookends The Bottom Corner. There is also tragedy that touches on the inherent difficulties faced by non-league clubs and officials. An honest toiler misses training because he has been held in detention; a septuagenarian referee continues officiating out of love, but also because of a lack of young referees; and a successful team completely gutted when its gaffer takes his players and staff to a more competitive level. When BBC presenter Mark Chapman was quoted about non-league football, “I love it. It feels earthy, it feels real. It’s the noise, it’s the Bovril, it’s the smell of a pie that’s been there a week and a half”, he possibly didn’t have in mind the wound-up clubs, the sodden and empty pitches from cancelled games, and the clear lack of investment from England’s ruling football body. This is non-league reality.
Nige Tassell does a remarkable job bringing these stories together. He does, however, seem to spread himself a little thin at times. A such, many stories are naturally open-ended and lack a take-away lesson. A bit of context with the structure of non-league football would not go astray, particularly for someone not familiar with the vagaries of it. The Bottom Corner is a breezy read, and clearly—as has been previously discussed—contains plenty of special moments that will resound with the reader beyond the last page. There are also plenty of those ‘Oh, so that’s where that player ended up!’ moments.
Upon coaching staff of phoenix club Hereford FC returning to the abandoned Edgar Road home ground of the wound-up Hereford United:
“In the home dressing room, the detritus of the final training session lay everywhere—muddy shirts, screwed-up socks and mildewing towels. Upstairs in the bar, the beer had been festering in the pipes for six months, while a selection of mince pies lay untouched on a tray. The Christmas decorations were still up. Everything seemed to be waiting for the arrival of a crack forensics team to dust for prints.” (pg. 272)
FULL TIME SCORE: An entertaining, end-to-end slog in a 3-2 FA Vase tie. Featuring a dog on the pitch.