Hackney Marshes – football’s ‘greatest shrine’

Hackney Marshes – football’s ‘greatest shrine’

One of my sons bought me a copy of London Fields by Charlie Connelly. It is, to quote its subtitle, a journey through football’s metroland, undertaken during the 1998-99 season, covering teams as diverse and unsung as Mitcham United and Harrow Borough, with bits of Tottenham and Arsenal thrown in. And, of course, Connelly paid to a visit to Hackney Marshes, which is a short jog from where I live and where watching sons of mine perform school football team heroics has provided some of the more intense experiences of my 33 years as a parent. As the 2017/18 season draws to a close, it seems fitting to quote a couple of passages from Connelly’s enjoyable book.

The vast area of grassland that makes up the Marshes became a centre for recreation in the early eighteenth century. A 1791 bull-baiting contest there once attracted 3,000 people. London country Council bought the 350-acre site in 1893 to provide facilities for sport and leisure, and now over 120 football pitches cover the grassland throughout the winter…

Today, however, a hot Sunday morning, the Marshes are nowhere near full. Most of the Sunday leagues haven’t started yet, so a few pre-season friendlies are dotted around the vast expanse. Team mates sit on each other’s shoulders fastening goalnets to crossbars, whilst model aeroplanes buzz around the sky. A couple of people walk dogs around the perimeter. In the distance, Canary Wharf gradually becomes visible as the sun burns through the morning haze. in one goalmouth a man takes pot shots at his eight-year-old son, who has no chance of stopping them. A couple girlfriends stand chatting, the sun glinting from their sunglasses, the breeze gentle shifting their cotton blouses. It’s still high summer, but the Sunday football season is almost upon us again…

Walking across Hackney Marshes on a Sunday evening, as the sun sinks behind the trees, the ghosts of thousands of old footballers roam the fields. For here there have been more matches, more goals, more tackles, more sendings-off, more fights, more twisted ankles, more victories, more defeats, more spectacular strikes that will live long in the memories of those who scored them – and which become more spectacular with each telling – than any other patch of ground in the country. Every rule change, fad, kit style and tactic has made an appearance here since before the laws of the game were codified. When people talk of football shrines, discussions immediately focus on Wembley, Old Trafford, the Nou Camp or the San Siro. For me, however, this country’s greatest shrine can be found just off the A102 on the way to Leyton.

And just to underline how long Hackney Marshes football has been a part of London life, enjoy this 1953 clip from British Pathé.

You can buy Charlie Connelly’s London Fields here.

Categories: Culture

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