Football and the stage have actually always made easy bedfellows

The cultural history of the game is richer than some might think

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"The crowd, the ceremony, the collusion of souls willing it to matter – makes it matter," explains Johnny Yates, the tragic non-league kit man and ex-pro, in Patrick Marber's new play The Red Lion.

Yates is describing why football is so important, amid the ruins of a club where almost everything that matters has been lost. It is a brilliant play, about the meaning and the stakes of non-league football, on at the National Theatre.

It is the story of three men at an unnamed semi-professional club in the south of England: Yates, the anxious manager, and a brilliant teenage player. The problems which we know erode elite football – greed, cheating, and more greed – tear this club apart.

Marber describes his work to The Independent as a “mythical play set in the seemingly unmythical universe of non-league football.” It is, as far as we can tell, the first major play set in the English non-league game. That semi-professional world, Marber says, is “metaphorically potent”. Nothing is said with more scorn (or more humour) than the manager’s fear that they have been made to look like “amateurs”.

The play is largely inspired by Marber’s time as a director of Ryman League side Lewes FC and his realisation that non-league football was not, in fact, “purer” or “less corrupted” than the top end of the game. “I found corruption in non-league just as much as I found reading about big football,” he says. “I recognised that this beautiful game will always perhaps get corrupted. I was interested in this very pure thing called ‘the game’, versus this impure element called ‘human beings’. That seemed full of resonance.”

It was in 2012, after two years at Lewes FC, that Marber decided to enter the seemingly sparse space of football theatre. “It was with a creeping dread,” he remembers. “You know that if you write a play about football, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism. ‘It’s not like that.’ ‘What does he know?’ All that kind of stuff.”

The fury of online fans is certainly nothing new. But is the play? This is the third year in a row in which London theatre has featured a play about football, and it feels slightly like a new departure.

Last year the Royal Court put on The Pass, a new play by Southampton fan John Donnelly. That was about a repressed gay footballer, Jason, who realises, towards the end of a successful career, that he barely knows himself.

“The thing about Jason is not whether or not he is gay,” Donnelly explains, “it is the fact that he is not sure who he is on any level. He is not permitted the space to work that out. Or at least doesn’t feel that he can. It is about that sense of isolation, being one of the best in the world at what you do, but being alone, and the psychological cost of that.” A film version, starring Russell Tovey, will be released next year.

Both plays are written by football fans and, while set at opposite ends of the pyramid, capture the language of football. They both decide not to feature the game itself. The Red Lion is set in a dirty dressing room, The Pass in hotel rooms. “I was determined not to show any football,” Donnelly says. “The problem with putting people on stage or screen playing football is that the football always looks bad.”

Those two plays, along with Tom Wells’ Jumpers for Goalposts about gay five-a-side teams, at the Bush Theatre in 2013, point to something new, an era of staged football, the next step in the expansive cultural embrace of the game which has been happening since Italia ’90. Everyone knows this story: Fever Pitch was published in 1992 and now football is described in ways and forms – such as David Peace’s hyper-stylised novels – that might have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

This sounds very neat and it is certainly true that English football culture, and its social base, have changed. We live, to our shame, in the era of tickets which cost £100 for one match and £2,000 for one season. Martin Amis joked in the London Review of Books in 1981 that English football “suffers from the dominance of its working-class ethos”. No one would ever say that now.

And yet that easy story is not quite true. The Playhouse in Liverpool staged the first production of The Game by Harold Brighouse, about a fictional, financially stricken team, in 1914. Away from the stage, the most ambitious football book ever written in English is still The Unfortunates by B S Johnson, with 27 chapters that can be read in any order. The cultural history of the game is richer than some might think.

“Plays about sport have been around for a very, very long time,” Marber explains, “and there have been lots of successful ones. I don’t think that there is more receptivity to this play now than there would have been 20 years ago. A play is a play.”