Patrick Marber never meant to write the best play that has been written about football. Always a fan (“I’ve always loved football and I played obsessively as a kid and I now watch obsessively as an adult and still play on astro with my friends and my kids”), Marber decided to move to Sussex in 2007 after a writing drought that had left him feeling adrift1.  His incandescent rise in British theatre was well documented after early success in comedy, and his dark, funny, and difficult plays were critically acclaimed2. But after disappointing reviews for Howard Katz and a departure (albeit a successful one) into the world of screenplays, Marber was struggling to write new original material for the stage.

In the autumn of 2009 he attended non-league Lewes FC and fell promptly and hard in love, the rootsy passion and proximity of the pitch and players (literally and metaphorically) a far cry from the glam polish of his boyhood Arsenal, though he retains a fierce affection for the north London club. As Lewes struggled with the spectre of debt in their 125th year of existence, Marber and five others fronted a bid to take the club into fan ownership, encouraged by Supporters Direct, and Lewes was reborn as Lewes Community Football Club3.

Obviously, Marber’s involvement left him saturated by football in a way many people, even the most ardent fan, never experience. And while he is constantly at pains to point out that the club featured in The Red Lion is not Lewes, it’s clear that when Marber says “I was on the board for two years so I learned a lot about the ways of non-league over that time”, the play would never have occurred without his time at the club. 

That’s not to say The Red Lion had an immediate genesis: “I didn’t ever think I would write about it until many years later, when I was off the board and I found myself thinking about my time at the club and some of the people I’d encountered and, for no apparent reason, felt an urge to write about it.” If you’re a writer and you’re blocked and the urge descends, it makes sense to follow where it leads. “I just thought, this is a world I haven’t seen on stage before and it’s a world I know something about and I hadn’t written a play for a very long time and the play just came along. It was a mystery to me.” 

That’s not to say the process was easy, despite Marber’s immersion in the game, both as a fan and as a former board member. “It took a long time to write it, to figure out what I really wanted to say and in what form, and I was very surprised I was writing a play about football.” This surprise was not merely a reflection of the matter presenting itself in his mind or the departure from more tried-and-tested themes. “It wasn’t a subject that I thought had great commercial or artistic promise, and I knew it would be a male play and would probably not appeal to a vast amount of people4  but, nevertheless, it was the play I could write at the time, so I wrote it.” The Red Lion debuted on 3 June 2015 at the National Theatre to good reviews and packed audiences.

“So we tried to sell the play as not just about football, but about lots of other things but, you know, it is a football play – there’s no escaping it.”

It is a football play, and the first thing that you notice when watching it is how well Marber captures the cut and thrust of football’s spoken sociolect, the humour and the zip of conversation between men well steeped in the game. Take the following exchange, which introduces a discussion of Yates the kit-man’s biscuit spreadsheet, a list of which referees like which biscuits. It’s all part of Yates’s efforts to find what Kidd calls “the incremental edge”, a small but effective form of bribery, part of how at semi-pro level, the ref is blind and, “You beckon him to the truth. As we define it,” as Kidd says.

Kidd “Oh, Mr Parker. ‘It Is He Who Cannot See.’

Yates ‘He Is The Poor Blind Referee.’

Kidd Yet the man’s hearing is uncanny. He sent me off, four years back. ‘Salty language’. Trophy game up Suffolk. Near Leiston, not them but near.

Yates I know.

Kidd One of theirs does one of ours. Rakes him. Achilles. Old school. Parker whistles, gives the free-kick to them! Our lad’s stretchered off. I’m in the dug-out. I murmur. I whisper: ‘You cheat, you blind fucking prick.’ Ref’s full 30 yards up the pitch. Turns. Straight red.”

Anyone who has spent any time listening to football conversation would recognise that, the quick patter, the ear for anecdote, the ribald humour. Kidd, for all his unpleasantness, is very funny. Describing Jordan, the gifted young player who becomes the object of a tussle between Yates and Kidd for the soul of the club, Kidd says, “He’s a ghost! He finds space that ain’t there. He’s so fucking good he don’t exist!” It’s hyperbolic and enthusiastic and it’s pure football. 

Sport does not often work on stage – though Marber recalls seeing John Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under, which stages a rugby league sevens contest – because it’s hard to translate the action. Marber sets it in the dressing-room of the club and the pitch is never seen5. Nonetheless, he sees sport and theatre as natural bedfellows: “We go to the theatre for some of the same reasons we go to sporting events. It’s live, it’s in front of us, it involves human beings.” Is sport sufficiently serious for theatre? “Well, those of us who love sport are very interested in it. But it’s on the back page… It matters enormously to us human beings, but it isn’t really that important, except that it is. It sits in a strange, contradictory place.” Is that why audiences found the humour welcome but then seemed slightly lost when the play moved onto darker things? 

Critics suggested that the play worked as a comedy, but was flawed in its tragic trajectory; was that a result of sport being insufficiently serious to work in that way? Marber refutes that: “Even when the audience weren’t understanding certain footballing nuances, they were understanding that people really cared about this stuff… I think football matters deeply and is as worthy of consideration as a play about scientific discovery, or opera or the tragedy of a mining community.” He continues, “I’m saying this isn’t just about sport, this is life and these people matter, this shabby little room matters and this football club matters. I am asserting that because human life is here and people in these shabby rooms experience great joy, great pain. No, most plays aren’t about football. But all plays are insisting that in this one room or in this one location, this is life.” 

But in The Red Lion, football is the substance, the life; it’s not just a metaphor for something else. It’s tempting and easy to see it as a dramatisation of Old Football versus New Football, the ageing kit man and club ‘legend’ Yates as Old Football and the brash, slick, out-for-himself manager Kidd as New Football6. The Against Modern Football trope is well-worn and, in today’s climate of multi-billion pound TV deals, the demise of much grassroots football, and the patina of filth that hangs over the sport’s governing bodies, it’s an attractive, even redemptive, one. But for Marber, that Manichean view of the game is too simple, and the rich complexity of the reality is what makes the tight exchanges and characterisation of The Red Lion work so well. “Yates is nostalgic but he is, in his own way, corrupt: he chooses to offer this boy [Jordan] representation, to protect him from… Kidd and in doing so breaks an unwritten rule, that you don’t represent a player that’s at your club7.”  

Marber’s exposure to the realities of a football club helped him to see that black and white are not on the spectrum where sport is concerned: “I suppose, I agree with some of what Jimmy Kidd says and I agree with what some of Yates says.” As fans and viewers, we are complicit in this greyness as well, something Marber recognises in himself. “I think I don’t really approve of the way football has gone, but I still watch it, I’m still addicted to it. I still find it exciting. I mourn that it’s a business, but I suspect that it was a business fifty years ago, just not quite as overtly so.” And the play wouldn’t work without the greyness, because it would not be real. “The play was only writable when I could find sympathy for the devil: I hate what Jimmy Kidd represents… but I kind of love him as a character, but I wouldn’t want to have a drink with him. I wouldn’t want him managing my football club either8.”  

Part of Kidd’s sympathy comes from his fractious relationship with, and ultimate expulsion by, the Board, a group Marber describes as being like the gods of Greek tragedy. Kidd, Yates, Jordan: all are poor, “they’re scrapping – twenty quid, thirty quid, small figures, but they really matter,” and Marber sets up an opposition between them and the board, an “eternal class war” as he calls it (further echoes of Clough). As Kidd says, “Fuck the Board, fuck the Board, fuck fuck fuck the Board… Them and Us. Since Time Began.” Is that political? “It’s political in the sense that we are at the bottom end of society… It’s a little portrait of austerity Britain and its various corruptions.” 

And these corruptions resonate with a football audience. Kidd makes an impassioned speech, which has a certain irony given his own dealings, but one that would chime immediately with fans up and down the country: “The owner of this club, the big fat builder, you know what he’s worth? You think he cares? We’re underlings. Atoms. He bought the club so he could sell the club. In five years time he’s gonna flog this ground to the highest bidder. They’ll build houses. And a superstore. Councillors, planners, developers – all in it together, all jolly old handshakes and Rotary Club. He’ll make millions. And then he’ll make a few more when he builds this club a crappy new (ha ha) ‘community stadium’ up near the by-pass. A mean little ground made of breezeblock and tin. And his company will sponsor it and then he’ll launder his cash through the club. It’s the wild west down ‘ere. Unregulated. Every cunt for himself. It’s a bleak English landscape, I know, but there it is.”

As Marber says, and he would know from his time with Lewes, “A lot of people feel that, they feel that a terrible crime has been committed on football clubs and it’s going on and on and it doesn’t seem to stop.” 

“It was a statement, albeit a tiny one.” 

The fan take-over at Lewes, to which Marber is referring, was an attempt to address some of those crimes, an action that predated the commentary offered by The Red Lion. As Marber says, “I believe in supporter-owned football clubs, I love what they do in the Bundesliga and I wish there was more of it here. I think it’s great for supporters to take control of their football clubs.” Often, though, the opportunity to act comes at the worst, most difficult time. “There has been more and more of this, but always in crisis, always when the board or the owners jump ship, and the fans have to rally round, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.” 

Marber is a firm advocate of action. “I wish more supporters would stage a coup, take over these clubs from these terrible owners.” But he’s realistic about how tough it is. “It requires a great deal of time and organisation and effort.” Nonetheless, “what AFC Wimbledon have done is just incredible, and FC United of Manchester. It makes me cheer with delight that these people have done this and created these clubs that will grow. Or not grow, it doesn’t matter. They’re there, and they serve their community and they believe in it.” The people make the club and Marber has, in a sense, given them a voice in the play, even if they are not actually on stage. “I was one of those people for a brief period, not for a long period, and I wanted to honour the people that do do that. That’s the optimism of the play. There are people, all over the country, all over the world, whose love for the game is pure, not financially driven, not doing it to get a pat on the back. They just love it.”

Elsewhere, a door leads to the outside. 

The door has an external sign fixed to it; the sign reads HOME.

But why should any of this matter? As Marber says, it can be hard to understand why people take sport so seriously, love it and become so rooted in it. The above, taken from the stage directions at the beginning of the play’s text, have a strong resonance once you’ve seen the play and its tragic climax. For Marber, there is no doubt that football has a spiritual dimension and evokes a sense of HOME, not domestically but of belonging, of being part. “Football is a place where many of us find that belonging, in a crowd, supporting, and a lot of men communicate via football, with their friends and indeed with their family.” Communication, community, communion: “Football is in some respects the new church, is the new community… I do think that people have a need to gather, whether it’s at football matches, theatre, religion, rock festivals. We want to gather and look in one direction and feel united with each other.” The football club provides the space, the focus, for people who might otherwise feel disconnected, listless. Despite his status as a former player, manager, and now kit man, Yates is disparaging about his nickname ‘Ledge’, preferring to see the club as what matters, its sustenance for the people who cluster around it the most important thing: “There’s a thousand little clubs like ours. Any lonesome duffer who sticks around, volunteers their time… programme-sellers, Ken the Turf, Joan cooking up her death burgers. The shop, the website, photographer, match reports, guys on the gate. We’re all called ‘legends’. But the club is the legend.”  

The club is home, and the tragedy of the play is that all three characters lose it. As Marber says, “It’s sad and no one quite gets what they want. It’s a tragedy. I always knew that the protagonist of the play would cause his own exile, so its momentum was tragic.” He goes on, “On a metaphorical level, I feel the momentum of football is tragic, because it’s a game you play when you’re young, you come to the game by kicking a ball and at a certain point you’re too old to kick a ball and all you can do is be a watcher and a fan.” Or invest your life and soul into a club. As the former pro and the young tyro discuss the past, Jordan drawing forth Yates’s reminiscences with the eager interest of someone looking up to a man who has been there and done that which he wants to do, the club legend offers a warning: “My father said a football man dies three times:

Once when he’s young and he sees he’s only second rate.

Twice when he hangs up his boots and has to live like the others.

And the third time… slow… if he falls out of love with the game.”

Yates is speaking from experience, caught in the utterly bitter dichotomy of suffering a lost love but with hope always softly suggesting that that it might be rekindled at any time.

And in this way, the characters suffer the estrangement from home that football itself is on the verge of suffering, even as we continue to love it, or at least remain complicit by consuming it. As Marber says, “I suppose, somewhere in me, that’s what I feel about football, its momentum is tragic… And it has to turn back and become more about what it used to be, clubs serving their communities as part of the community, owned by the community, otherwise it’s just going to die, I feel.” Against the backdrop of austerity Britain, where thousands of these small communities have died or are dying, it’s a poignant and powerful observation. These things matter and so football matters. 

It might, indeed, be one of the few areas (ironically perhaps because it is, by its nature, a business, and thus available to buy), where we might be able to claw something of that back, to rebuild the church. Marber, in writing The Red Lion, is pointing out that something needs to be done. The play speaks of the dark heart of football, but it also sings of its purity of soul, of the parts that make football great and important. As the cycling journalist David Walsh wrote in his book The Program, “Some of the more thoughtful practitioners of our trade like to say that if you are to be a sportswriter it’s better to love the writing more than the sport. I loved the sport. I loved the role that sportswriters could play in sport: afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted, as news reporters used to say.” That is what Marber has achieved with his call to arms. The Red Lion is unsparing in its gaze, but it is a football play, a frank, honest and moving love letter to the game.