‘Shorn of crowds in the tens of thousands, there is time and space to see the small acts of love and devotion that any given supporter performs on a match day.’
Barcelona to Buckie Thistle: Exploring Football’s Roads Less Travelled
By Mat Guy
Published by Luath Press
Your new book Barcelona to Buckie Thistle: Exploring Football’s Roads Less Travelled has just been published. What is it about the ‘minnow’ football teams playing out of the limelight that keeps you coming back?
For me they are the very essence of the beautiful game, these smaller teams. Shorn of crowds in the tens of thousands, there is time and space to see the small acts of love and devotion that any given supporter performs on a match day. From passing through a ‘lucky’ turnstile that they first used as a child, hand in hand with a parent or grandparent, to meeting up with old friends on the same scrap of terrace – a spot made sacrosanct by the generations before, who assembled there in days long gone.
The smaller the team, the greater the connection between club and community, who rely on each other to survive and thrive. Meaning, belonging, identity fuels any supporter’s passion for their club or national team. At a club attracting crowds in the hundreds, or low thousands, it is easier to see just how important these sporting institutions really are. How much they really mean. It chimes with my first trips to see my grandfather’s team, Salisbury, as a young boy.
The book visits teams from the Scottish Highlands right across to places like the Faroe Islands, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein. How did you find out about the teams included in the book?
I have always held a fascination for the unknown, fuelled by a box of old National Geographic maps at my Grandfather’s house. We would pour over them and imagine what far away places looked like. When I fell in love with football, I began to do the same to far away national teams, or obscure sounding club sides. They fascinated me far more than the bigger teams. So, in that respect, I have been training all my life to seek out those teams on football’s road less travelled!
In researching for Barcelona To Buckie Thistle, I went back to that tried and tested method, albeit aided by modern cheats such as google maps and Wikipedia! Being the most northerly senior football league in Britain, the Highland League really did stand out to me as a league I needed in my life. I was proved right!
So many football teams, whether playing in league teams or not, exist around the world. Have you found many differences in the game being played by teams in different countries?
No matter the cultural or religious differences from country to country, the language barriers in place, as soon as players cross that white line and the whistle is blown, we all speak the same language: football. No matter where I have been in the world in the name of football, I have had immersive, enthralling experiences with people whom I couldn’t understand a word of, and they couldn’t me! Cheers, sighs, gesticulations, smiles, shakes of the head and raised eyebrows – we all understand the passions the beautiful game instils in us. It is a universal, wordless language just like mathematics. It is joyous.
Is there a moment from your travels researching the book that stands out for you?
There are so many moments! But one that stands out came from a UEFA Nations League match between Liechtenstein and Armenia. As the turnstiles opened and the 1,000 or souls brave enough to face down a bitterly cold Alpine night in late November began to file in, two boys stood handing out match programmes. One, so eager to make sure everyone got a copy, had overloaded himself, his arms stuffed. As he tried to hand them out, they began to cascade to the floor. Mortified, he bent down to try and collect them, only for more to tumble! Thankfully a few locals helped him corral them back up – though his colleague didn’t, bent double as he was in fits of laughter!
But it served to highlight to me, this boys desire to do his job well, the pride he had in serving his national team in this menial task. It meant something. Possibly the world to him. Doing it right mattered. Just as fixtures down among the small print in newspapers matter, to the passionate few whose teams and communities live there.
This is your third book on the beautiful game – is there anything new that you’ve learned about the sport or from the teams that you’ve met?
I’ve learnt humility from the Bhutanese and Tibetan teams I have met, who bring a unique, Buddhist perspective to the sport. Meeting a Palestinian player whose career was cut short by detention in an Israeli prison certainly opened my eyes to a world I had never seen before. But, ultimately, it is the same precious lessons that I have re-affirmed on almost every trip I take, that football is about community, people, friendship, belonging. It is purpose, pride and identity. Whether at Victoria Park, Buckie, or the Camp-Nou, Barcelona, the meaning is the same. The only difference are the numbers in attendance.
Barcelona to Buckie Thistle: Exploring Football’s Roads Less Travelled by Mat Guy is published by Luath Press, priced £12.99.