Curry sauce, pennos, scraps, community, optimism, and a shed load of goals: this FA Cup tie between two fan-owned Merseyside clubs—Prescot Cables and City of Liverpool FC—had the bloody lot.

It’s an hour before kick-off at Volair Park and all of the programmes have sold out. The turnstiles are creaking, the flags are being unfurled, and our bellies are rammo with chips, curry sauce, and peas. There’s a game on tonight. A really fucking massive game of football.

Football—to talk a bit like your dad when he picks you up from the train station at Christmas—has gone a bit nuts recently. The Theatre of Dreams has become the Chamber of Content. Wages went from something you earned to something you demanded—and got. And transfer fees are getting to the point where they don’t really count anymore; they’re just oil barrels filled with money being passed from one investment company to the next. Remember how mad you thought it was that Manchester United spent £89m on one of the most exquisite footballers on the planet last year? Well, that just doesn’t really count now that the loose sauce of summer 2k17 has splurted across our screens. “Oh, what? You have a contract? Haha, no worries—we’ll just pay you to pay that off and then shove £198m of shut-up-and-take-it money into your old boss’s mouth.” But, tonight, there’s a game on that really does count. A game that matters to people who matter, anyway. It’s Prescot Cables v City of Liverpool FC in the FA Cup Third Round Qualifying. A game between two community-based football clubs owned by their supporters. A game of real football. A grudge match named after a local bus route. It’s the 10A Derby and it is going to go off.

We slurped a pint of the good stuff at the pub up the road, and one of the lads suggested that we should go and meet Aaron, a very committed Cables fan. The Cables, formed in 1884—four years before the Football League—take their name from British Insulated Cables, then the largest local employer, and play in the Northern Premier League Division One North, the 8th tier of English football. Owned by their fans, they play in yellow and black, and tonight are facing a not-quite-as-ancient club from across the city, The Purps—a direct nod to the blue of Everton and the red of Liverpool. They might not have the longevity of their opponents, but they make up for that in the way that they run the club—modern and socialist-influenced, set out to ruffle some feathers, daring to exist in the angry age of hyper-commercialisation in modern British football.

There’s a smattering of boys and girls, moms and dads, grandparents and babies starting to head down the sloping, terraced street towards the stadium, with its proud ‘1884’ graffiti greeting anyone who enters, and Aaron has been sat down on the pavement outside the stadium gates for a while. His yellow scarf is fossilised with badges, and he tells us that tonight’s game is a proper Merseyside Derby.

“I’ve lived here in Prescot all my life, so the Cables are incredibly important to me and it’s a really exciting thing to be in the FA Cup,” he says. “You know, we’ve been around since 1884, so we’re a genuinely big club. All of the money required to watch football now is a joke, but here I can pay a couple of quid to get in and a couple of quid for a programme and that’s my weekend sorted.”

Aaron talks with the passion of someone truly devoted to a cause that he believes in. Somebody who feels a genuine relationship between fan, club, and player. Somebody reaping the rewards of a football club that is respecting the roots of the game itself.

“To do well in this competition would mean so much to me,” Aaron says, and points over to a man in a Prescot tracksuit opening the gates, “and a lot to that man over there, Tony Zeverona.”

I quickly ask Aaron what his ideal result would be tonight, and without hesitating he says he wants a replay. “Going to City of Liverpool on a Tuesday night in Bootle would be great.”

The stand is casting geometric shadows across the deep green of the immaculate pitch, and the players are starting to walk into the ground. None of them have headphones to block out normal people, and they all stop and say hi to the bloke who is repeatedly apologising for having run out of programmes. They look a lot like lads who really like football—which, oddly, seems unnatural.

Tony Zeverona has been the chairman of Prescot Cables for thirteen years now—since the club became supporter-owned in 2005. We step onto the pitch and Tony tells me that his day, including such an important one as today, can involve anything: doing maintenance work on the ground, attending league meetings, signing players, unblocking the toilets, cleaning the dressing rooms, putting the kit out, talking to me.

“There’s no such thing as a job that you don’t do,” he says. “Everyone mucks in. It all goes down to personal commitment. We can have games where we’re short-handed, and games like tonight where we’ve got enough hands on deck. You want that exposure, don’t you? And every year it’s someone’s year. We’ve never been to the first round proper since I’ve been involved, and I’d love to do it this year.”

Tony’s got a lot to do, so I quickly ask him how he feels about City of Liverpool—a team founded only two year ago, who’ve built a devout match day following (headed up by the Purple Brigade, whose Twitter bio reads: “Anti Discrimination—Pro Community—Scouse & Proud—#refugeeswelcome”), an all-important 11,000 followers on Twitter, and everyone’s kitted out in purple hats, scarves, and shirts. They’re a new club with old values utilising modern amenities properly.

“I know the fans; I know a lot of the board members,” Tony says. “A lot of them are Liverpool fans, and I’m a Liverpool fan, too. It’s a small, honest, tight-knit community in non-league, and all of them at City of Liverpool are good people.

“It’s a hard thing what they’re doing, and they’ve just got to keep the momentum going. Other teams have tried and failed, and I sincerely wish them all of the best.

We often romanticise non-league football. We look at the corrugated iron, really lovely little food huts, and the terraced houses with kids watching out of bedroom windows, and we think: That’s how football used to be. You know, when it was better. When it looked like an L.S. Lowry drawing of Subbuteo. Our nostalgia-tinted lives often tell us fibs, but tonight there’s no need for nostalgia. This is happening now, the atmosphere is fucking electric, and there’s a bunch of thirteen-year-old scallies up the other end who are having more fun than I ever had down at the Wolves.

I’m standing behind the goal fifteen minutes before kick-off. Danny Martin is putting his purple flag across the fence in front of him, and he tells me that he got fed up of paying through the nose for Premier League football.

“They didn’t care about me,” he says, “but these lads do.”

Last season, Danny came down here for the first time and enjoyed what he saw—a group of lads who felt the same as him—so he started going every week. “I got a flag made, as you can see, and we never miss it now: home and away,” he says.

“This is the City of Liverpool team—not from a certain borough or town, but from the city of Liverpool. We don’t discriminate against anyone, a lot of the lads who come here have been going Liverpool or Everton for years, and they bring the family, the wife, the kids here. People can afford this and they’re getting back what they loved about the game. It’s brought a love back to the game that many people thought had gone.”

Non-league was here before them—they know that—but this feels like something special. “People are asking in their areas and their cities why they haven’t got this,” he says, flag finally settled now. “I do feel that we’ve created some sort of buzz that other people are catching up to. We’ve shown that there’s a gap for this. Even if we lose tonight, we still clap the lads off. They appreciate you and you appreciate them.”

Before the ref blows I ask Danny about tonight—we’re here for the football after all.

“I think tonight it’s the case of them thinking we’re the new boys coming into their school and we’ve gotta show them that this isn’t a flash in the pan,” he says. “But we’re here to stay …”

There’s an absolute snorter of a game going on here, and as the shadows get longer and the tackles get harder, the Cables go 1–0 up. The scally ultras behind the goal go nuts, the families in the stand, stand and clap, and Steve Nolan and Ernie Duffy, two long-time Prescot fans I’m talking to, jump with real, genuine joy.

“Once you start coming here,” says Steve, leaning on the fence next to the yellow corner flag, “you find yourself at the heart of a community; you actually feel part of it. We had something called the ‘Cables Volunteer Army’ this year to get the ground ready, to paint the insides. Alright Tony, lad ” Tony walks past and puts his hand affectionately on Steve’s shoulder.

For all the talk of community, none of it ever feels forced. These aren’t people who know each other because they happen to live next door to each other, or people who work on the desk opposite from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday—this is a group of people brought together through similar ideals, similar hopes, similar morals. A group intrinsically linked through generations of identity, through the passing on of a woolly hat or a bobbled scarf. Every conversation, whether it be with the chairman, a player, or a ten-year-old lad on the side of the pitch, is interrupted by someone saying hi and asking how the other is doing. It’s really bloody lovely, and according to these lads, it’s something that is in decline at Anfield or at the Goodison.

I walk down the other end of the pitch behind the goal that the Purps are piling the pressure on, and they score two goals in quick succession—a well-deserved penalty that is rocketed into the top corner, and a 40-yard lob that is executed with the finesse of someone who we are told is worth more money than sense. After signing in the summer, Karl Noon, whose lob sends groups of 40-year-old men and 80-year-old women and 10-year-old girls and 15-year-old boys into an ecstatic pile of hugs, will be having a pint in the clubhouse after the game. It’s half-time, it’s Prescot Cables 1–2 City of Liverpool FC, and the whole thing is fucking wonderful.

During the interval there’s about twenty young boys and girls playing football in the goalmouth nearest to the Purps fans, a couple of lads were rolling a tasty smelling funky fag behind the stand, and, as the sun started to set, the ground looked even more like something from the dreamy memory bank of how we’re so often told football used to be. Or, perhaps, how football still can be.

The Cables equalise through another penalty after 60 minutes, the Purps have a guy sent off and the game descends into a classically-scrappy, classically-entertaining cup tie—including a 22-man scuffle soundtracked by the stadium announcer attempting to defuse the situation by murmuring through the speakers “Now, now boys, it’s only a game …”

It’s proper class entertainment, the whole thing—all punctuated by the constant percussion of Prescot’s resident drummer and that sharp punching sound that is only made by the clean hit of foot on a fully pumped up size 5 ball. There’s been pennos, 40-yard lobs, red cards, scraps, constant chatting—it’s the most entertaining football match I’ve been to for a long, long time. There’s a lot more to lower league football than a filthy rag of a paper exploiting an overweight goalkeeper on an FA Cup run.

At full time, I have a quick chat with Ed Rimmer, Ross Flemington, and David Macdonald, all City of Liverpool fans, about what I’ve seen and why they’re here. The three are all season ticket holders at either Goodison or Anfield but watch the Purps as often as they can and are all shareholders and members.

Ross echoes what so many of the people around the ground tonight have told me—that the plastic, economically unviable Premier League has people going back to the roots of football—to the roots of their interest in football. I’d pay all sorts of money to watch Luis Suárez dribble, dance, and bite around with a football every weekend, but there is a sense of heritage that is going missing.

“I think lots of Liverpool fans got fed up with the money,” says Ross. “When I first started going, I had a paper round that I’d do twice a week and that was enough for tickets. You can’t do that if you’re a little scally now. [At Liverpool] it’s all forty and fifty-year-old, well-off fellas, the kids from Anfield can’t afford to go to the game anymore. Here, you see all the kids with ket wigs and all the scallies that are here tonight and it feels like it’s something local—not a marketing tool for international brands to attach themselves too. This is for us.”

David still goes home and away following Everton, but coming to see City of Liverpool takes him to when he was a kid. It’s not a search for a nostalgic pastime, I suggest, but a search for the aspects of the game that we fell in love with.

“Coming to a football match should be fun, regardless of the result,” he says. “It should involve going to new places, experiencing new towns, new cultures, different people, different ways of life, the clothes, the fashion—it’s all football. I’ve just come back from watching Everton play in Europe, and I took my lad there and I love it, it’s brilliant, and I’ll keep on going for the rest of my life. But coming here, it encompasses something else; it’s like football putting its arms around the fans and saying ‘this is what it’s all about’ …”

“It’s not just the lads either,” Ed says. “Girls are coming, too. When we started going to the match when we were kids that was pretty much unheard of. You know, looking into the future, if we followed this all the way to the Premier League, would everything we’ve built on fall apart? I don’t think it would. This is something that is running on principles and not money-making.

“We’re all members of this, all part owners, and that gives us a sense of belonging. Football is tribal, isn’t it, and when you go to Anfield and you’re surrounded by Cockneys and blokes who’ve never been to Liverpool in their life … How are they part of our community? We didn’t grow up with them, but we grew up with all the lads who are here tonight.”

The floodlights are flickering off; the noise in the stands is of huddling, crisp packets, beer bottles, and the sound of fans clapping as they walk away from the ground. Steve and Ernie show us to the boardroom and offer to buy us a pint with the players at the bar, but we need to get the train back into Liverpool. There were 900 people here tonight, but it felt more like 9,000.

It was a draw though, remember? Which means there’ll be a replay on Tuesday night. Aaron’s replay in Bootle.

“See you next week, lads,” I say, really hoping that I mean it.

It’s an hour before kick-off at the Delta Taxis stadium in Bootle and the programme is, sensationally, called Come on La. Even the match day programme is talking to the fan the way a fan talks to a fan—its subheading is “YOU GOING THE MATCH?” The turnstiles are creaking, the flags are being unfurled on the Dodge Kop, and our bellies are rammo with crisps, chocolate, and a pint of the good stuff. There’s a game on tonight. A really fucking massive game of football.

The ground is already filling up with people I recognise from the game on Friday, the bar already has a queue, and both sets of players are surveying the pitch. Next to the beaut of a turnstile, there’s a man in a hi-vis vest who I recognise, and after double checking the programme I realise it’s Paul Manning, the chairman and founder of City of Liverpool FC. Everyone, as Tony Zeverona said, mucks in for the greater good of the club.

Paul was recently re-elected at the club AGM as chairman for another three years, and tells me that he and the other founding members had had enough of “the transformation of Anfield away from a bastion of Scouse invincibility.”

“Anfield was constantly eroded by the previous American owners, and has been by the current ones, into a marketing tool,” Paul says. “Sitting next to your mate at the match, sitting next Scouse people, or even local people, is dying off. You were getting loads of day trippers. It was becoming almost like a stag weekend event at Anfield. And it’s true in a lot of big Premier League clubs. In 2014 we just got sick of it: it felt like the balance had tipped. The more we looked into starting a club, the more we thought we’ve gotta do this. So we did it.

“We’re a club that we want to belong to the people of Liverpool forever,” he adds. “It’s never ever going to be owned by anybody else—it’s impossible. Nobody can buy more than one share; nobody can come in and take over. Football clubs are supposed to be the embodiment of your local community. There is a localism aspect to our football clubs that is dying off. That’s what this is about; this football club is the scouse embodiment of our community. And that’s what it should be; a football club is representative of its city or its town or its village or its street.

“What happens with a lot of new non-league teams is the first game has the biggest attendance, and they go down from there. With us, our first attendance was our smallest. People came, and then went this is absolutely brilliant and told their mates. It all happened word of mouth. That’s the best thing you can do in the world. You can do all the marketing you want, but unless someone tells their mate ‘this is great’, it means nothing. You can’t beat that. We grew from there. We were 2–1 down in the 90th minute, and then we scored twice in injury time to win! Check out YouTube, the videos on there of when we scored the winning goal—there were only 400 fans here, and they went mad when the players jumped in with them. In our community, that went viral, and everyone went ‘fucking hell that’s brilliant—I’m coming’. The club has been filled with drama on the football pitch since day one—last minute winners, sending offs, penalties, cup wins, play-off finals, nine men and we still win the cup—everything. It’s unbeatable.”

The game kicks off and the Purps are occupying the Dodge Kop and one of the smaller stands behind the goal down the opposite end, they’re all absolutely bouncing. “THE PURPS ARE GONNA WIN THE FA CUP! WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED!” swirls around the ground as the flag bearers swirl their six-foot flags behind the goal. And within three minutes, they’re bouncing even more as the Purps go 1–0 up. By half-time, it’s 4–1, and the Purps are playing some incredible football for any level. The lads aren’t checking their fantasy teams at half-time, they’re still chanting. At this club, the 10-year-old with a megaphone and an adidas hoodie over his head is respected as much as the centre half commanding his box.

I go inside to grab a pint and have a chat with Paul Squires, the Purps’ merchandise man. He says that the merch is about showing off part of their identity. “It’s not about selling things,” he says, “it’s about being able to say ‘I’m a part of this club’. Being part of a people’s club. It’s an old phrase, but it really is to do with the fans more than anyone else. It’s not about selling any old tat. It started off with selling a couple of T-shirts, and it exploded from that. It costs £5 instead of £50 to watch football here. It’s great value for money. Unlike a lot of modern football, we’re all about making it not feel like a TV programme.”

Paul’s nailed it, hasn’t he? That’s what this is about. It’s about making it not a TV programme. It’s about not abandoning the localised and tribal aspects a football club. It’s about not pricing out locals. It’s about not making it merely a vehicle for advertising. It’s about not forgetting the cultural roots of the sport. This isn’t to say that he, or we, don’t like modern football—we really bloody do. It’s great. Modern footy is crazy skilful, crazy dramatic, crazy silly, crazy sexy—and it’s the thing that most of us think about on the bus, on the toilet, and at the dinner table. But, these two clubs, and non-league football in general, make for a very genuine and sincere alternative.

Talking about not making it a TV programme though, the Purps, in a display of absolute football annihilation, run out 8–2 winners here, making it 10–4 on aggregate. The lads in the Dodge Kop are going nuts; kids are on shoulders, players are beaming. You see, this would actually make a banger of a TV programme. But you know what? If you haven’t already done so, get out there for yourself: take a tenner out this weekend, head down to your local non-league ground, buy a programme and get on the terrace for yourself. You’ll bloody love it. 

Photos by Milo Belgrove.

This appeared in MUNDIAL Issue 11, which you can still get from our lovely online shop, as opposed to all other previous issues which you can only get on eBay. Issue 12 is still available in shops all over the place. Check out your nearest stockist here.