It’s been just over 8 years since Rushden & Diamonds FC went out of business.
If you’re unfamiliar with this small, now defunct team from Northamptonshire, England, don’t worry - you’re not really missing much. This was a club that flew a little too close to the sun and inevitably paid the price.
Held up by the wealth of Max Griggs, owner of the Dr. Martens shoe company, Diamonds surged through the ranks of English football from non-league to League One all within 10 glorious years. None of it was sustainable of course - at one time they even had former Jamaican international striker Onandi Lowe on the books with a salary double that of his teammates (which didn’t stop Lowe pursuing a career in the cocaine trade on the side)
By July 2011 the coffers were empty and the club went into administration. It’d been a fun ride, but one that could never last.
And yes, this is a familiar sports-team-goes-bust story, but for me personally it was a huge blow - because Rushden & Diamonds were my local club. Warm memories of match days still linger: an afternoon spent lodged between my dad and older brother during a freezing cold game on Boxing Day; the youthful shock of hearing beer-soaked adults hurling obscene abuse at the referee; the charcoaled taste of a greasy, delicious Diamond Burger.
It’d be over sentimentalizing things to call my early years watching this team a formative experience, but it certainly felt like that.
When the club officially folded 8 years ago, a hole formed. It was a hole I filled with Arsenal and the EPL and while this was fine - and still is fine – the huge scale of top tier European football means there’s always the sense of being held at arms length; you’re a part of it while being apart from it; an afterthought until there's a lull in season ticket sales.
But despite this, and despite it being a world away from watching Rushden & Diamonds play out a beautifully drab 0-0 draw at Nene Park with 6,000 others, it soon started to feel completely normal, and carried on feeling that way until 2016.
Arriving in Canada 3 years ago, I wasn’t aware that work was going on behind the scenes to establish a league in this country. I didn’t realize that Derek Martin of Sports Entertainment Atlantic was in discussions to bring a team to Halifax. And I certainly didn’t know that a group of fans that would later become Privateers 1882 had begun meeting in bars across the city to organize the formation of a supporters group.
But all this was happening and I’m grateful it was, because this club and this league have quietly grown into one of life’s small pleasures, and in doing so filled a hole that I’d forgotten was even there.
One of the many charms of the CanPL is the sense of it being a collective. It won’t last, of course: rivalries will grow and contentious incidents will lead to hostility between clubs, but that’s all to come. For now, with the priority being the growth of the game in Canada, everyone’s getting along.
See the reaction of the wider CanPL community to Cavalry’s victory in Vancouver recently. The Football Supporter Rule Book dictates that Cavalry, undeniably the best team in the league, should be viewed with withering scorn by the rest of us – how dare they be so good? Who, exactly, do they think they are?! But the fallout from their victory was overwhelmingly positive because by beating an MLS side they made the league look good, and by extension further legitimized it.
The on-field product has been great, too - and I’m not even talking about the quality of play, but simply how fun it often is. After years spent watching European football reach a level of excellence so high that it now feels oddly robotic (just in case you don't watch any of these leagues, imagine the latest Terminator movie’s B plot involves Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 trying to beat Skynet's resolute offside trap while a cyborg Pep Guardiola watches cerebrally from afar) it’s been refreshing to see football played in a more unhinged manner. Scuffed shots, defenders wildly out of position, goalkeepers flailing – it’s great fun.
Of course, it hasn’t been perfect and there are things that will eventually need addressing. For a start, the league could do with being a little more transparent. The schedule, too, has been a bit of a disaster. And honestly, if I have to read another One Soccer social media post desperately trying to adopt the parlance of a smarmy 15-year-old then I might have to send Jordan Murrell their way for a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match. But really, who cares? Let’s just enjoy the fact that this thing exists.
Because as the atmosphere around the world’s top leagues becomes more vitriolic and divisive - a quick glance at the comments on any top-level player’s Instagram account after a defeat is enough to make you weep - it’s nice to be part of something a little kinder.
Closer to home, with the lens focused more sharply on HFX Wanderers FC, the CanPL has been an unqualified success.
Take the Wanderers Grounds, for example. It stretches the limits of credulity to accept that staff and fans had to work so hard to convince the province to allow them to house a football team there. This stadium, positioned perfectly downtown, has quickly become one of Halifax’s sweet spots, and the fact that it was allowed to remain unused for so long is unforgivable.
Off the pitch, there’s a pleasing accessibility to the club which has allowed it to foster a strong relationship with the local community.
This is evident when you see Zachary Sukunda and Peter Schaale running sessions for Bedford Titans, or Elliot Simmons, Tomasz Skublak and Kodai Iida wandering around the stadium at half-time to hang out with supporters.
On a personal level, too, it’s also evident with how open and obliging the staff are with those of us who blog and podcast about it.
Of course, many of these things are contractual obligations but you get the sense that a lot of the players genuinely enjoy doing them and in turn are engaged and willing participants. If nothing else it gives them something to do in the evenings (the old adage that ‘you’re never more than 10 feet from a rat in London’ could easily be changed to ‘you’re never more than 10 feet from a Wanderers player in Halifax Shopping Centre after 6pm on a weeknight’).
Being such a visible presence around the community humanizes the team and creates a far more forgiving environment on the terraces if results don’t go to plan. After all, you’re less likely to curse out a defensive error if the defender who made it happily signed your 8-year-old’s jersey on the way out of the ground last week.
Years down the line, as the club grows bigger and its reach stretches further, some of these early perks are bound to get lost along the way - so for now we should enjoy this. We should enjoy this because at its heart this club acts as a mirror held up to the best facets of the community it represents; a community that preaches inclusiveness, friendliness, and rather confusingly for outsiders such as myself an absolute conviction that house parties belong in the kitchen.
In 10 years time we’ll all look back at these early days with a sepia toned nostalgia. We’ll talk about Luis Perea’s winner against Forge. We’ll recall the manic energy of the Wanderers Grounds during the Fury game. We’ll wax lyrical about Tomasz Skublak’s moment of class in Ottawa.
And when the next generation of supporters ask us what it was like to live through all this, to be present in these wonderful, fledgling years of professional football in Nova Scotia and Canada, we’ll tell them it was the best, just the best.
Gary is an Arsenal supporting, Halifax-based Brit who moved to Canada in 2016 unaware that he was about to fall in love with another football team. He can be found on on Twitter in the following places: @FromAwaysHFX and @GaryG86 or on Instagram at fromawayshfx.