We spoke to Louis Allen, producer of a new short documentary The Beeches, which profiles non-league Tividale F.C. as they compete for promotion to the Midland League Premier Division.
The Premier League is the richest league in the world. But our focus on the elite level of English football can obscure what the game looks like in its lower reaches. Far removed from controversy over the introduction of VAR, or how many millions to spend on their next signing, the reality for many non-league clubs is financial insecurity, deteriorating facilities and crowds numbering in the tens. Tividale F.C. in the West Midlands is a typical non-league club. We spoke to Louis Allen, producer of The Beeches, a new film that follows Tividale during the climax to their 2018-19 season and which profiles the community and people that keep Tividale running.
MG: What drew you to Tividale?
Louis Allen: It started with us wanting to make a film about non-league football fans. I’m a Dulwich Hamlet fan and I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere at non-league grounds and the people you meet, as much as the football itself. Through my interest in non-league football, I found out about ‘Groundhoppers’. They are football fans, but they don’t support one team. Instead, they go to different stadiums every week and tick them off, basically like a train-spotter but for football.
I got in contact with a few groundhoppers, and one that we spoke to drove us to Tividale. And the minute we walked through the front door we just knew that this place had to be the subject of our film. We fell in love with the people, the club and everything else around there.
MG: A word that comes up a lot in the film is ‘community’. How important is Tividale to the community?
LA: Community is a real trigger world. ‘How do we save community?’ is something we’re very concerned with as a society at the moment. I come from London and community is quite a fluid concept in a big city, but in a smaller place, in the Black Country for example, it’s everything. Everyone, regardless of age, gender or race is there [at the ground]. It shows how important the football club is.
MG: Many of our readers will be familiar with Dulwich Hamlet and the community that’s formed around that non-league club. Is the sense of community at Tividale comparable to Dulwich?
LA: The comparison between Dulwich Hamlet and Tividale is tempting, but I think it’s also tricky. Dulwich Hamlet is in London, with a largely middle-class fanbase and that’s unusual. The more time I spend going to non-league football the more it becomes clear that Dulwich is an exception.
I think Tividale is more representative of non-league football. There are 1600 non-league football clubs in the country and I know that every single one of the clubs has characters like those that appear in our film: we could have gone to any of the other 1600 clubs and you’d find similar people doing similar things.
MG: Why is it important to highlight non-league football?
LA: It’s the football that people don’t get to see very often. TV shows the glory, the money and the fame, but non-league football and the people who work to ensure it continues rarely get the same attention. It’s important that we remember that these are the people pulling it all together. Take Roger Baggett, the club’s dressing room manager, who appears in the film. He dedicates hours and hours every week to the club, all of it unpaid. You see also the scene with Leon Murray, the club’s General Manager, when he’s discussing the club jumpers and how they buy the blue jumpers from M&S and go and press the Tividale badge onto them. It’s the attention to detail and love for what they are doing that is beautiful and rarely gets seen.
MG: Leon in particular mentions that non-league or grassroots football is in trouble. Is that your impression?
LA: It’s so easy for non-league clubs to be cut off, the lights can shut off in a second. We saw it at Dulwich Hamlet and props to them, they got out of their difficulties and are doing really well now. Would Tividale be able to do that? I don’t think so. If they got shut out, that’s it. That’s why there’s a little bit of desperation when you speak to them. If people didn’t turn up to the bar, the players wouldn’t be able to play.
MG: How many fans do Tividale get every week?
LA: At the games that we attended there would be forty to fifty people watching – often barely watching – and then you’d go to the bar at the end and there would be 200 people in there. That’s where the community is so important and why the club is so important for the community.
MG: Did you set out to make a film about football? Or is the film a way of speaking to other issues?
LA: It’s about the way that communal activities bring people together: it’s about the characters, it just happens that football is such a rich source for these stories. The person who I made the film with (Harry Zundel) doesn’t really like football. And I think that was really important when we were making the film, because I could easily get lost in the football, rather than in the bigger story that we were telling.
It also helped because non-league is a bit of a nightmare to contextualise. The first question people ask is ‘where are they in this pyramid?’. Trying to get people to understand the scale of it is tough.
The Beeches is a film by Louis Allen and Harry Zundel.