Film director Ken Loach loves football and it’s the Bath City FC team where his allegiance lies. Simon Horsford joins him on the terraces of Twerton Park and discovers why he’s such a big fan
It’s unquestionably the only winter game”, says Ken Loach as we sit talking about football in a café near Bath Spa station. It’s a wet and windy Friday night and Loach has just stepped off the London train after a week spent editing his latest film, Sorry We Missed You. Perhaps there’s an element of mischief to his observation as he knows that this is a city ostensibly known for its rugby team. But the goings-on at the Rec mean nothing to a man devoted to a team in the less rarified surroundings of Twerton, Bath City FC.
Loach has been a fan of the club since he arrived in the city in 1974 having previously followed Nuneaton Borough (he was born in Nuneaton) and Fulham. “I first went to watch Nuneaton with my Dad when I was about five or six and I was hooked. We also used to go to Blackpool on holiday and once we went to see Blackpool play, it must have been the late forties, and I saw Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen [the latter later played for Bath City]. I remember the orange shirts.
“When we moved to Bath, I started bringing the kids to watch City at Twerton because Fulham always let you down, although I still look out for them. You get hooked going to watch Bath City, you couldn’t fail to.” Clearly other sports don’t matter in the same way to Loach, apart from cricket in the summer
“What’s special about City is that you are very connected to the club. Dads bring their kids, grandads bring their grandkids, and there’s a chance for children to become a mascot and lead the team out. There is the craic on the terraces and a bond with the players, you recognise people around you week in week out and you feel a sensation that’s now lacking at the big clubs.”
Key to Loach’s passion is that the club is rooted in the community [the club was formed as Bath AFC in 1889]. Yes, the big clubs are too, but most have lost the human touch as self-interest and greed take hold. Here at Bath City in many ways you find the football in the raw, the soul of the game, where you get a mug of tea at half-time, and there isn’t a prawn sandwich in sight. As television and commercialisation have changed the modern game, not always for the better, Loach says: “I feel disconnected to the Premier League. There is such a corporate feel to it, whereas you come to the lower leagues [Bath are in the Vanarama National League South, the sixth tier of the English game] and it feels like a proper game and the football’s quite good too, the players are semi-pro and some have been professional. The passion is as great as at any club as you experience despair to wild exhilaration. It’s like a gymnasium of the emotions.”
I see what he means a few weeks after our first meeting when I join him at Twerton Park for a league game against Concord Rangers from Canvey Island in Essex. Loach takes his place on the terraces – he prefers to stand – where Bath’s most loyal fans urge the team on and throw in the occasional chant of “we hate rugby” – “the wit and wisdom of the crowd”, says Loach with a smile. His knowledge about the players is clear as is his frustration at the 1–1 draw; at one point he also likens being a film director to being a football manager.
His commitment to the team also saw Loach make a short film about them, Another City, a week in the life of Bath’s football club. “It was the end of the nineties and we filmed in the changing room. They were ferocious with each other and the commitment and energy were total.” It’s a lovely film that captures, as the narrator puts it, “the other side of Bath” and features some illustrious former players such as Tony Book (who later captained Manchester City) and ex-manager Malcolm Allison.
The idea that this is a club with its soul in the heart of Bath is reinforced by the fact that since May 2017 it has been a community-owned club.
The two-year campaign raised in excess of £350,000 with around 600 fans now the majority shareholders. Loach adds: “The club had been facing large debts and I knew one of the instigators of FC United, Andy Walsh, and he came down to Bath and talked about the idea and it just gathered strength and made sense.” [FC United were founded in 2005 by Manchester United supporters opposed to American businessman Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of the club].
Although attendance has gone up by around 40 per cent, the club is still running at an on-going loss and has debts totalling around £1 million. This is why the club has been contemplating other revenue streams. Twerton Park hosts businesses such as CrossFit Gym Bath and webuyanycar.com and has teamed up with a private investment company Greenacre Capital to explore a redevelopment of the ground with various proposals taking in sports facilities, a new grandstand, community hub and the regeneration of Twerton High Street.
“It will be difficult to pull off though,” says Loach, “as we have to raise the money and construct something that the community is happy with. The problem is that to raise the cash they say student housing is needed. But that is a separate issue as people need affordable homes, particularly around Twerton. The people who work here can’t afford to live here. A community club has got to connect to the needs of the community and so it’s a difficult balance, a genuine dilemma.”
I wondered whether Loach cast an envious glance towards Bath Rugby, but his answer is pretty clear. “It is a problem for us and in the town the size of Bath we should get the back page of the local newspaper, but most of the time we are squeezed off. Bath Rugby also has that corporate feel – others will disagree – that I don’t care for in [football’s] Premier League. It isn’t just about local people supporting their club, it’s about having sponsors who are among the wealthiest companies in the land and that takes away the sense of community.”
Loach has also gone on record too as being wholly against the expansion of the Rec with the development of a permanent stadium. “One thing Bath does not need is that when you stand in the Orange Grove with the abbey on one side and look across to the green hill and see a miniature Wembley Stadium. It would annihilate the view and I can’t think why the trustees of the Rec are even considering this. It’s unforgivable when we are trying to protect this heritage.”
Messing with the aspect of Bath is another topic close to Loach’s heart. The city has seen many changes in recent decades not always for the best – a “destructive urban renewal” was noted in The Sack of Bath by Adam Ferguson in the early seventies. Loach says the city was nicer when he moved here in 1974. “I preferred it. It was just a normal city with shops and local industries that supported the people here.”
He goes on to muse about what the inhabitants want from the city and what it needs to sustain itself. “The gem of Bath is the Georgian cohesion of it and it is this that makes the city so special together with the green spaces around it. The moment you say let’s have some more hotels, let’s have bigger blocks of accommodation and shops, that unity is fragmented by other chunks of architecture. Then you scrub it up to attract more people and it becomes something else, something to display rather than something to inhabit and support. If the reason you are there for is just walking around and looking at things, it becomes fake; the city isn’t living. There should be a balance between sustainability and having tourists.”
Away from a city about which he is so passionate, Loach is back in the director’s chair again at the age of 82. Sorry We Missed You is likely to be released in late 2019. As with I, Daniel Blake, a Palm d’Or winner at Cannes, it is set in the north-east of England (Loach believes the sense of identity is stronger in the north) and revolves around a family struggling with debt since the 2008 financial crash. “Dad is a delivery driver and Mum a care worker. Both work stupid hours and are on zero hours contracts and are self-employed and [the film] shows how their lives are reflected within the family. It explores the challenges of balancing the gig economy with family life.”
For more than 50 years, with the likes of Cathy Come Home, My Name is Joe, Raining Stones and It’s A Free World, Loach has documented the flip side of life in modern Britain. Films about social injustice and inequality that try to “get to the heart of the struggle that’s implicit in society,” he says, and also that capture the culture of ordinary, working class people.
I wonder if he thinks Britain is a better place than when he started making films?
“By and large, it’s got worse. With Cathy Come Home we were in the sixties and there were still the remnants of a post-war settlement where housing was seen as something people were entitled to and the health service was properly nationalised.
“Since 1979 when [Margaret] Thatcher came in and the market let rip, I think it has got worse because the demands on labour are that it should be flexible – you can hire and fire quickly and the employer has little responsibility for holiday pay, or sick pay. The gig economy seems to me an inevitable consequence of that harsh competition and if [job] security is an aim then people are less secure, but it is an inevitable part of the current political process.
“It saddens me that the Labour Party, until the last year or two, hasn’t shown any acknowledgement or understanding of this, or chosen not to, and have instead been a part of that economic change, where the only losers are the working class and the people who benefit are those who gain their income from profit.”
Whether Loach will make another film highlighting such issues is uncertain, but what is clear is that he will continue to be a familiar figure on the terraces of Bath City FC cheering on his team. n
Forthcoming fixtures at Bath City FC:
12 January, 3pm, East Thurrock Utd; 19 January, 3pm, Torquay Utd; 2 Feb, 3pm, Hampton and Richmond Borough.