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Non-League Day: 1950s Bromley pitches, showpiece internationals and 60 years' support

Features

Surrounding south London’s only Premier League club is a range of non-league sides. In advance of Non-League Day on Saturday, 26th March, we catch up with some of the people who sustain south London’s rich non-league scene.

A weekday night in south London, and a football fanatic is leaning over his kitchen table.

“I get all my Jackpot tickets cut up, folded up and stapled,” he says keenly. “Then when I get down to the ground on Saturday at around one o’clock, I start selling. It’s £40 to the winner and £51 to the club.

"But I’ve had to give up in the last year – I’m 74 and it’s harder and harder to get up and down the stands these days!”

This is Roy Oliver, a Bromley fan. And yet he’s much more than that.

Home and away since 1961, committee member for four decades, and the heart and soul of a vibrant football community, he has been jack-of-all-trades and yet mastered every one.

The romance of non-league football is what keeps him coming all these years later. It manifests itself in one familiar emotion.

“It’s the friendliness,” he says. “Everybody talks to each other, everybody is on the same page. The friendliness and camaraderie of people is what really appealed to me. You get hooked.”

Hooked he was, but what chance did he have?

“My father took me down in the mid-1950s, because my nan used to be in the tea room in the old wooden stand, doing the tea and the Bovril. Sometimes he would take me down at half-time because you could get in for free.

“We used to sell Jackpot tickets for tuppence each, or five for tenpence. The tea bar had proper china cups in those days, so then I’d have to go around picking them up, washing them and putting them away.

“In summer we would do some painting and weeding, working on the pitch. Anything that needed doing we would give it a try, because it was all voluntary. You did it because you wanted to do it.”

You would be excused for thinking of this as another world, an antiquated notion of football’s past. But in those early years following Bromley Oliver saw some things that other clubs at non-league level could only dream of.

“We were the first team to get our floodlights, and so the Japan [national] team came and played – there were about 8,500 thousand people out there.

"It was huge crowds, and the first time a Japanese team had toured England, so that was quite notable.

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My father took me down in the 1950s - my nan used to be in the tea room... doing the Bovril.

Roy Oliver

“In 1949, we had played Nigeria for the first time they toured England, and in 1946 we played a team called Sing Tao from Hong Kong, and they were the first Chinese team to come.”

Did those glamourous evenings leave Oliver longing for more? No chance.

“I’ve been to Queens Park Rangers, I’ve been to Chelsea. I’ve been to both Arsenal grounds. For my birthday a few years ago a friend took me to the Emirates. They played Watford in the cup and they were dreadful. I sat there and thought: ‘I’d rather watch Bromley any day!’”

Every club wants their feats immortalised in literature and in film – although for Bromley, this eventuality was perhaps not exactly as they had imagined it. The Bromley Boys, David Roberts’ humorous retelling of a Bromley obsessed childhood, was subtitled: ‘The True Story of Supporting the Worst Football Team in Britain’.

But it is a tale that the club holds close to its heart – indeed they advertised for extras to play fans in the film – perhaps because it gets to the nub of what makes non-league football special: that football at all levels remains about community, rather than pure success. Indeed, as Roberts writes: ‘The only time I felt I truly belonged somewhere was when I was watching Bromley.”

Roberts’ childhood woes make for good reading, but Bromley’s tag of the ‘Worst Football Team in Britain’ is by no means close to being justified. Founded in 1892, the Lillywhites have long been a part of south London’s footballing culture.

That being said, times have changed. As Bromley’s success grows – they missed out on promotion to the Football League last season after losing in the play-offs – they become more departed from his childhood past. But Oliver knows things must move on.

“As we’re becoming more professional, you’ve got more stewards saying: ‘Move along’,” he laments. “Where we used to stand was doing no harm, just in front of the tea room. I said: ‘I was standing here before you were even in nappies!’

“It’s brilliant where we’ve come from, but sometimes it’s a little bit sad because it’s not like it used to be. But you move on – you have to have ambition, otherwise you’re stagnant and you won’t go anywhere.”

While regulations change and seasons come and go, the things that Oliver really holds dear remain.

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You don’t run away. You don’t say: ‘I’m not watching that rubbish’ – and believe me, we saw some dreadful rubbish over the years!”

Roy Oliver

A regular for 60 years, he’s well known by all at Hayes Lane. Rather than bask in his notoriety, he instead uses it to encourage the younger generations.

“It’s nice to be recognised. Everyone knows me down at Bromley, and everyone says hello,” he admits. “There’s a guy who lives down the road from me who doesn’t really know anyone, and I try to take these people under my wing. I get him in with the crowd, and get everyone to say hello to him.

“He very much enjoys it now really. He used to be a Palace supporter!” We’ll let him off this time.

In the end, be it Premier League or Isthmian League, Roy Oliver holds above everything the principles that supporters carry with them on rain-soaked away trips and cold midweek February nights.

“You support the team home and away. You support if you’re winning every game or if you’re losing every game. You don’t run away.

"You don’t say: ‘I’m not watching that rubbish’ – and believe me, we saw some dreadful rubbish over the years!”

If a supporter of the affectionately dubbed ‘Worst Football Team in Britain’ can do it, anyone can.

Find out when your local non-league side is in action here!