“I can’t answer that. Jinxes are real.”
A lifetime of supporting Bromley FC has taught writer, ad-man, programme obsessive and Alan Stonebridge superfan Dave Roberts not to take the club’s remarkable start to the season for granted. Top of the National League with just one defeat in fourteen – and that coming after first-choice ‘keeper Mark Cousins was stretchered off in the opening minutes at Yeovil Town – having already posted some impressive victories against erstwhile luminaries of the Football League, the Ravens’ unofficial historian refuses to be drawn into talk of promotions parties in South-East London.
“I still get the idea that despite the team’s success, we’re not taken completely seriously. Until recently, our games were amongst the last shown on the TV highlights show and live coverage seems to be the one a season BT are obliged to show. Even the local paper hardly ever has Bromley FC on the back page.”
Before 2008, the average football fan might have struggled to point to Bromley on a map, let alone give you a potted rundown of the local football club’s ill-fated journey to the bottom of the Isthmian League in the late 1960s. That changed with Roberts’ second book – and his first foray into non-fiction – as The Bromley Boys introduced bookish matchgoers to the wonderfully niche obsession of a fourteen year old and the non-league side down the road. From skipping out of boarding school to attend a midweek match, to getting a lift home from his footballing idol, via tea huts and and endless run of defeats, the true essence of football fandom oozed off the pages, earning Roberts the nickname ‘Mr. Bromley’, despite an extended period living on the other side of the world, unable to attend games at Hayes Lane.
“When I was writing The Bromley Boys, I didn’t think anyone would buy it – it felt a bit niche and even the publisher described it as ‘wilfully uncommercial’. As for being Mr Bromley, there are plenty of people more deserving of the title than me – fans who have barely missed a game in sixty-odd years, people who have devoted their lives to the club in various voluntary roles and the man who has been selling Golden Goal tickets from before I started watching Bromley. He still is today.”
The Bromley Boys was followed up with 32 Programmes, a delightful deep dive into the mind of a collector, as Dave attempts to trim down his enormous collection of football programmes to just thirty-two, at the behest of his understanding partner; and Sad Men, a superb memoir based around Roberts’ career in advertising, and a bittersweet tale of unfulfilled ambition, before 2016’s Home and Away saw the writer return to Hayes Lane for his beloved Bromley’s first season in the top flight of non-league football, in a season diary that attempts to defy geography, the British transport system and common sense. Like its predecessor, Roberts’ second book centred on an unfashionable non-league side tucked away in a forgotten corner on the Kent/London border was a hit with fans, pundits and writers alike.
“I think most football fans have more in common than I realised, so I just stick to being honest about what’s going on in my head – however humiliating it might seem at the time; whether it’s match day rituals, jinxes, keeping elaborate records or making ridiculously long journeys for meaningless matches.”
It was, by his own admission, supposed to be the final written chapter of his “lifelong love affair” with Bromley FC. The two books, published some eight years apart, had spanned a lifetime of supportership, covering the reckless abandon of adolescence to the undying embers of passion in a man that’s old enough to know better. But the last eighteen months in the lives of both Roberts and Bromey have been extraordinary.
“The plan was for Home and Away to be the last – I was sure I’d exhausted all possible material. But my lifelong fantasy had been to see Bromley play at Wembley. All hope had pretty much gone – until there was suddenly an outside chance. I started keeping notes from the Trophy run in a file named ‘Just in Case’ never thinking they would be needed. The nearer we got to the final, the more nervous I got.”
Having spent much of the 2017/18 campaign bobbing safely around midtable in the National League, a welcome distraction arrived in the form of an FA Trophy cup run. After stumbling and staggering their way past Hartley Wintney, Blyth Spartans and Workington Town in the opening few rounds, an interminable wait followed to find out whether the Ravens would in with a chance of reaching Wembley, as their replayed tie against Spennymoor Town was postponed three times, before a 2-1 victory in the north east secured a two-legged semi-final against fellow National League side Gateshead. A brace from forward Louis Dennis, who would be snapped up by Portsmouth at the end of the season, gave Bromley the advantage as they travelled back up north for the second leg, before an early own goal put Neil Smith’s side in the driving seat. Despite Scott Barrow’s equaliser on the day, Bromley held out and they – and Dave Roberts – were heading for Wembley.
National League North side Brackley Town were all that stood in the way between Bromley and glory, and once Omar Buigel had given the National League side the lead at Wembley, the result looked a forgone conclusion. Those ardent followers of Bromley knew differently however and, on cue, in the final seconds of the game, former Birmingham City and Wolves defender Roger Johnson deflected the ball past his own ‘keeper to level the scored. Predictably, Bromley would go on to lose the penalty shootout.
“When the final whistle went, I was still undecided about writing the book. I like to have vaguely happy endings to books and this was far from it. There was a real risk that Bromley fans wouldn’t enjoy the book – even I haven’t been able to read that chapter since writing it.. But in the end, I decided that reaching Wembley had been the dream, and watching the team walk out was one of the most thrilling and proud moments of my (football) life.”
Thanks to the unique way in which independent publisher Unbound fund their titles, Dave was able to crowdfund his next book, and The Long Long Road to Wembley hit bookstores in August this year. Having already garnered praise from the good and great of the literature world including football writers Adam Hurrey and Miguel Delaney, Roberts’ new book completes a year in the limelight for Bromley FC, who made their silver screen debut in the independent film adaptation of The Bromley Boys in May 2018.
“Well, it was’t something I expected, but I do feel a little surge of pride knowing that a film about my club exists. Most of my childhood memories from the book didn’t make the final script, but the few that did make it were accurately done and thoroughly enjoyable. I thought the casting – especially the actors playing me and my hero Alan Stonebridge – were perfect.”
Having conquered both the page and the silver screen, attention in the opening weeks of this season has turned to Bromley’s performances on the pitch, as an unexpected surge to the top of the National League has left tongues wagging in the non-league world. A strong summer of recruitment that saw thirteen players arrive at Hayes Lane, including three acquisitions from League One in Gillingham pair Josh Rees (who played a part in Bromley’s trip to Wembley) and Billy Bingham and Southend United midfielder Michael Klass, has refreshed a squad struggling to break out of the rat race of midtable, while the form of fellow new boy Michael Cheek – with seven goals from thirteen starts – has been crucial to the side’s impressive start.
“I wish I knew what was behind the strong start. I keep waiting for the bubble to burst, but Bromley keep the unbeaten run going apart from the loss to Yeovil which doesn’t really count as our ‘keeper was stretched off after a couple of minutes. This team seems mentally tougher than any Bromley team I’ve seen in the past and there are no obvious weaknesses in any position. Every season has seen a steady improvement, so it shouldn’t be a huge shock that things are currently going well. Having said that, I still stare at the table in disbelief sometimes.”
While the plethora of new faces have impressed, the importance of stability and continuity at the club can’t be understated. Manager Neil Smith has been at the helm since 2016, and before that was the assistant to Mark Goldberg, who began his reign at Hayes Lane in 2006. Appointing just two managers in thirteen years is a remarkable stat at any level of football, but in the volatile world of non-league its almost unheard of. Owner Robin Stanton-Gleaves, who became the club’s major shareholder in 2016, has long extolled the virture of stability, whilst simultaneously mapping out a progressive vision for the club’s future. If it sounds like a far cry from the rag-tag team that Dave Roberts fell in love with fifty years ago, then the author’s most recent trip to the hallowed ground certainly brought the progress of his beloved Bromley into sharp focus.
“The 2-1 win over Notts County was one of the more satisfying moments in my life as a Bromley supporter. There’s a board at the entrance to Hayes Lane, and I just stood and started at it when it said NEXT MATCH HERE – NOTTS COUNTY. It didn’t really sink in until then. Saying that, the result doesn’t quite match the 1-0 win at Lincoln during their promotion season, and the 7-3 win at Torquay in the same year.
“While things may have changed on the pitch, it’s always been a friendly club and you soon get to know the people who turn up, week in week out. I think that’s the key to the enduring obsession, being with fans who are every bit as passionate as you are, regardless of how well the team is doing. When I go to Hayes Lane these days, I’ll see at least half a dozen people who were at the first games I went to over fifty years ago.”
For now, it remains early days, but already Bromley have put themselves among the chasing pack for one of those elusive promotion spots, and a place in the promised land of the Football League. Though he refuses to be drawn on their chances of going up, Roberts remains prepared.
“I’m working on a non-Bromley book at the moment, but if we get promoted, I’d love to do one covering this season. I even have another file I’m using for making notes. It’s the same one I used for the Trophy run, called ‘Just In Case’…”
Thanks to Dave for agreeing to talk to us about his love affair with Bromley. You can purchase The Long Long Road to Wembley from Amazon, Foyles, and Waterstones, as well as all discerning independent bookshops. You can also follow Dave on Twitter.