Stephen Wrench on being an unlikely fan of an unlikely team.
“This isn’t football,” shouted one fan at my umpteenth match at Whitehawk FC, “it’s conceptual art.” He wasn’t wrong. If you imagine football to be super- macho, super-homophobic and frankly a bit nasty, think again. Whitehawk FC, Brighton’s alternative football team that’s currently flying high in all the glamour of the Isthmian League South East Division, is none of these. Here’s what Whitehawk is: anti-homophobic, anti-sexist and anti-racist. A little eccentric. A lot of fun. There’s none of the multi-million-pound trappings of the Premier League here, no Ferraris parked in a gated enclosure, no pampered stars with their own entourage. Players here have part-time jobs. The current goalkeeper, James Broadbent, is a teacher in real life.
There are also the Ultras, the hard-core fans with the softest of hearts and the sharpest of wits. “Mister Broadbent,” they sing, “in a class of his own.” To stand among them is to be part of that conceptual art performance. Swearing isn’t permitted. Rainbow hats, scarves and banners are everywhere. Wit and laughter and improvisation are very much encouraged. Drums? Of course. Kazoos? Naturally. Bugle and air raid siren? Of course. A lobster? If you’re very lucky. Fans sing throughout the match. Ah, the match. This is non-league football, where fans move behind the opponent’s goal for each half, the better to cheer as a goal goes in and jeer good-naturedly at the visiting goalkeeper. Unsure of the rules? Don’t know the words to the songs? Trust me, you’ll learn.
I’ve never been a full-blooded football fan before. Being gay and watching football didn’t seem compatible. Then I went to my first match at Whitehawk’s home ground, tucked away just beyond East Brighton Park, nestling under the Downs. By the time the Ultras broke into their ritualistic “Homophobia we say no, sexism we say no, racism we say no”, just after a version of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough, I was hooked. That was four seasons ago. I’ve been to just about every home match since, and increasingly to away matches too. These have the added bonus of a kit designed by artist David Shrigley, featuring the rainbow flag.
It’s been an invigorating tonic in difficult times. I’m long-term HIV positive and a new complication a few years ago sent my mental health into freefall. I became increasingly isolated. And yet I never missed a Whitehawk match. Somehow in that liberated zone, my anxious brain feels able to take a break.
The rush of a goal going in beats any anti-depressant. The match doesn’t need to go well for it to be a vintage afternoon. Whitehawk have been relegated twice in two seasons. “It’s just like watching Whitehawk,” sing the Ultras when things are – sometimes inevitably – going badly. But the most important song has the simplest chorus.
“We say football’s for all/football’s for all/We’re Whitehawk FC/where football’s for all.”
It really is. Come and join us. You might just become hooked too.
Whitehawk FC play at The TerraPura Ground, Brighton BN2 5TS. Entrance is £10/£5 concessions. There’s free transport to the remaining matches this season. Register at https://whitehawkfc.ktckts.com/brand/travel
For Whitehawk FC, visit: www.whitehawkfc.com
For Whitehawk Ultras, visit: www.whitehawkultras.co.uk
Facebook: @whitehawkultras; Twitter: @hawksultras
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