Local beer and local football are giving communities a source of identity and pride, writes Katie Mather
Thursday 28 November 2019
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Standing in the drizzle of an unseasonably chilly Saturday, the fans of Altrincham FC aren’t fazed. They’ve got their scarves and their pride, but they’ve also got the best bar in any league. Well, according to Paul Rooney who runs it, anyway. He’s a lifelong Manchester United fan, but ten years ago he stopped making the pilgrimage to Old Trafford and started watching the Robins at Moss Lane instead.
“It just got too expensive,” he says, opening our conversation with complete honesty. “To be honest, it’s not a great experience there anymore. I’m in my mid-thirties and so I might not have been old enough to drink back then, but I remember when you could stand and watch the game and have a beer. The atmosphere in the higher leagues is vanilla now. I’m not prepared to pay for it.”
Paul’s love for the beautiful game and the rich culture that surrounds it brought him to open Libero in 2018, Altrincham’s (and possibly the country’s) first bar dedicated to great craft beer, football and football style. But how did that turn into a full-time business relationship with his local team?
“The lads who run the club’s social media come to Libero quite often, and we got chatting. We ended up running a stall as a trial at the end of last season; now we’re running a full bar from a garden shed on the ground every match day.”
The beers they sell from that shed can be anything from Pomona Island’s pale ale (Pomona Island also gave the shed its chiller as a show of support) to Kernel, Marble, Northern Monk and Wylam kegs on what’ll soon be six lines. Plus bottles and cans, of course.
“We’re not looking to take over,” he says, “there are still real ales and lagers in the clubhouse. But there’s a new demographic of fans out there looking for the type of football they can feel involved with, and they’re young and they like craft beer. We get a small percentage of people turning up to matches because they’ve got a passive interest – maybe they used to watch football as a kid, maybe they’ve never been to a game before – but what’s made them turn up is knowing there’s good beer on too. And that they can drink it while they watch.”
Paul’s not the only one ditching top-level football for the buzz and camaraderie of the lower leagues. Authenticity and ownership are important to lower league fans. You could say they’re what matter most, especially when the season’s looking pretty miserable. It’s strikingly similar to the way beer fans feel about their favourite breweries. A sense of being there for them through the good and the bad, supporting their new ventures, a sense of belonging, following them wherever they go, backing them up in the face of harsh opposition, donating to their fundraisers and kickstarters… They say craft beer is like a cult. It’s probably more like being a lower league football fan.
Accrington Stanley fan and editor and creator of the team’s Raw Milk zine, Josh Cook agrees that there’s something more urgent about supporting in the lower leagues.
“Every Saturday I see honest, hardworking individuals giving their everything so that my town can have an identity. It’s understanding that they’re fighting, not just for three points, but the jobs of administration staff in the offices. The groundsman. The fella who flips the burgers that you’ve known since school. There is a burning sense of community around the lower leagues that doesn’t exist anymore higher up the pyramid. More and more people are realising that fact, and clubs that display a true sense of community are ready to offer an image of what football once was: a beacon of personal pride in where you’re from and who you are.”
Pints of support
“I’ve always liked lower league football,” says Chapter Brewing owner and brewer Noah Torn. “I supported Hereford back home and I heard the Linnets needed help getting a new stadium, so we wanted to support them.”
Chapter Brewing’s relationship with the Runcorn Linnets began after beer writer Kirsty Walker (@doubleshiny on Twitter, read her blog: Lady Sinks The Booze) wrote about the brewery in the local paper. Kirsty happened to know one of the Linnets’ board members, and spoke to them about stocking a locally-made beer in the clubhouse – namely something by Chapter. Noah rebadged his Parabola pale ale as “Linnets Ale” for them and since then the fans have been enjoying more and more of the brewery’s eclectic line-up.
Kirsty was also instrumental in setting up the Runcorn Linnets’ beer festival, which raises money for the youth team. Having Chapter’s beers behind the clubhouse bar raises much-needed funds for the club, and having the choice of beers from Kolsch to its Forgotten Decibels Trappist-style bottles (made with Abbey yeast) has proved incredibly popular with the fans.
“The away fans like it too,” she says. “They think it's a great idea, and a few of them have said they are going to suggest it at their home grounds.”
It makes sense. When you’re supporting your local heroes, do you want to be drinking Carling, or would you rather be drinking something made down the road to complete that warm sense of pride and identity?
“There’s a community element in it I think,” says Noah. “When you’re watching and you know what’s involved, that everyone’s from Runcorn, Stockport, wherever, it makes sense to want to drink beer made half a mile down the road. There’s the whole idea of independence too that really fits together. Beer fans are very similar to football fans.”
Support from local breweries is essential for many football teams’ survival even higher up in the leagues. Lincolnshire Brewing Company’s Cheeky Imp is brewed in partnership with League One’s Lincoln City FC to raise money for the Imps’ youth academy. A new beer made specially for the team and named by fans (“1884” after the year the team was established) provides even more much-appreciated cash to help secure Lincoln City’s survival in a difficult financial climate.
Brewery sponsorship isn’t a new phenomenon. In his book “Bottled: English Football’s Boozy Story”, Benjamin Roberts looks back on the beginnings of football as we know it in a chapter pleasingly called “Liquid Assets”. As it happens, breweries have been intrinsically entwined with our biggest clubs right from the start, and some were founded based entirely on their board members’ and managers’ beer-based interests. Benjamin explains:
“A major shareholder of Everton Football Club owned a brewery, and many of the shareholders there were teetotal Methodists. They blamed poor performance on the players getting changed in a nearby hotel, owned by the same major shareholder. As a result he set up his own team — Liverpool FC — who ended up staying at Anfield and forcing Everton to move, as he owned the ground.”
Brewery investments weren’t just creating new teams via conflicting interests, however. They were offering players a much-needed lifeline.
“FIFA’s maximum wage meant that footballers needed to keep a job too,” explains Benjamin, “and managers enticed players to their teams by giving them a pub to live and work in. Burnley FC in particular used to do this to bring footballers down from Scotland.”
There’s something to be said for the support the humble local pub offers football too. In Benjamin’s book he tells the legend of Newton Heath. In 1902, Newton Heath LYR Football Club were riddled with debt and their ground was padlocked by debt collectors. Captain Harry Stafford popped into his local looking for his dog (or so the story goes) and bumped into local businessman John Henry Davies, owner of Manchester Brewery. After a couple of pints (no doubt), Davies agreed to make what turned out to be a substantial but sound investment — Newton Heath became Manchester United soon after. Not bad for an afternoon in the pub.
Better beer, bigger crowds
Chris Lee, editor of Outside Write football culture blog and podcast, says there are quite a few benefits to having better beer at your matches. He says lower league clubs are finding that being supported by their local micropubs as well as local breweries has positive knock-on effects.
“Audiences have become more discerning,” he says. “The likes of Maidstone United have got Shepherd Neame and their “Spitfire” beer, Brighton & Hove Albion’s partnership with Harvey’s of nearby Lewes gives them their own ‘Albion Ale’ (complete with seagull crest), and Sheffield Wednesday have Thornbridge providing their special “The Wednesday” beer. But in the higher leagues, you can’t drink within sight of the pitch, so if you want the experience of drinking a pint as you watch the game, you can only really do that with the lower leagues.”
It’s not so much that people are heading to grassroots matches because they want to be able to drink, but it looks like being able to get decent beer is a big bonus.
“Teams like Dulwich Hamlet, because of their location, can have a hipstery fanbase too, who do enjoy their craft beer. You get a bigger connection between players and fans in the lower leagues and that brings new fans back, and unlike bigger games there’s often a real sense of jeopardy, that unscripted drama of the sport. And there’s not as much aggro!”
A bit of background here: Dulwich Hamlet are one of the luckiest teams in the country. In 2016 they almost lost their ground to developers, and thanks to a strong “nouveaux” fanbase that’s bigger and louder than ever they are flourishing — with the help of money coming in from the beers being sold at their clubhouse.
“People visiting clubs like Dulwich appreciate authenticity,” says Chris, “and having local beer there just makes perfect sense. And that hipster element — giving fans more choice, having more flexibility, it gives them what they want.”
Josh Cook’s beloved Accrington Stanley can rely on support from a local brewery too, even if the beers aren’t “craft” per se. He says that even by raising the quality of the classic beers available has made a big difference to fans.
“Bowland Brewery have played a key part in how the club wants to be seen by local people. They provide a good selection of beer that is so much more than the usual flat lager.”
“This has galvanised the footfall through the home turnstiles over the past three years and it continues to steadily grow. The brewery, with good direction from the club, have played their part in building a great family atmosphere where you no longer want to arrive at 14:55 and leave for 17:00.”
Diversity and independence
Newer audiences mean an influx of fresh-faced diversity to old clubs. Where a lower league team might have only had a small congregation of die-hard lifelong fans at one time, the “nouveaux”, drawn in with the promise of a proper game and a decent beer, are breathing new life into their local clubs. In a recent article, a Dulwich Hamlet fan told The Guardian they loved their newfound team because supporting them has “a beers-in-the-air intensity, minus the toxic shit that normally goes with it.”
“Young fans are steering attitudes towards a more progressive, liberal point of view,” says Paul Rooney about his fellow Altrincham FC supporters.
“Altrincham was the first team in the world to wear a full rainbow kit in support of football versus homophobia, and that links in really well with us, we’re really openly progressive with our politics at the bar. I hate to use the term but the club’s demographic has predominantly been middle-aged and older. But as the younger fans have got involved with the club, things like the rainbow shirt have been able to happen, and that’s helping to broaden the demographic even further.”
And if bringing great beer to football clubs helps encourage that sort of heart-warming progression and integration, so much the better. Get those pints in.
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