Patient Zero: Martyn Bowden
Downtown Sutton is postcard New England. The Puritans left their mark here. There are the old farmhouses, the white church, the common, even an old blacksmith house that’s still standing. It’s hard to think of a place in America where you’re less likely to find a rich legacy of football.
The closest city, Worcester, is one of those forgotten American cities without any real identity beyond playing second fiddle to almost every other city in the region. Sutton was a farming community — it still has a few farms — but it’s become a typical middle-class American suburb, located close enough to a few major highways to make it an ideal place to start a family. And, despite all its Americanisms, Sutton has a footballing legacy (in relative terms) that most towns and cities would be proud of. And all because Martyn Bowden needed a place for his university club team to play.
Bowden grew up immersed in football. A kid from Liverpool, his grandfather William Bowden played for Gorton Athletic, renamed Ardwick Association Football Club before later becoming Manchester City, at a time when the game was still played by amateurs. But his grandfather, a left-back, used to find “gold sovereigns” in his boots after the ritualistic post-game communal bath. His grandfather bought him his first pair of boots in Chester when he was seven and he used to go to as many Everton games as he could with his uncle Bill growing up. He became a Blue for life. And Tommy Lawton was his favourite player.
“The first book I ever read from cover to cover was ‘Football is My Business’ by Tommy Lawton, hard-back, and because I loved it [my parents] gave it to me for Christmas in 1945-46.”
Though football had taken over his personal life, Bowden remained a bookish kid. A professional career was not in his future, so he dedicated himself to becoming a university professor. Brought up in a working-class family, Bowden got himself into the University College London on a full scholarship. After finishing his schooling, Bowden found himself looking at graduate school in the United States.
Bowden decided the University of Nebraska was his next step. He had studied the Great Plains and the geography of the American midwest in college and wanted to further his education. At the suggestion of his professor at UCL, Bowden accepted an offer from Nebraska and bought his boat ticket.
“I said to people, ‘Nebraska, Alaska.’ I just wanted to get over there,” Bowden says.
What he hadn’t realised was that the midwest isn’t all cowboys and Indians. The United States is a vast place and the middle of the country is mostly empty farmland. When he arrived, together with a man named Heathcote, his roommate and studying partner from London, Bowden discovered that his beloved game was yet to reach the middle of America. The pair started kicking a ball around the university mall, and it wasn’t long before others joined them.
They created a team comprised primarily of graduate students from around the world — there was one American, but he was only trusted to play right-back, where his deficiencies couldn’t be exposed as easily. Bowden’s soccer team was the The University of Nebraska’s first, and they had a hard time finding other schools to play. They started out playing mostly against local teams of immigrants from nearby Omaha, and eventually began organising matches with other college club teams from across the midwest.
After two years in Nebraska, Bowden got married and moved to the University of California, Berkeley to begin his doctorate degree. He played on a club team there, as well. Four years later, Bowden moved to the east coast to work at Dartmouth College. He held a position at the Ivy League school for a year before being offered a job at Clark University in Worcester.
At Clark, Bowden joined the graduate faculty club team, El Gammel’s Camels. The Camels played student teams from other schools in the area, but found practice time on the school’s pitches tough to come by. Bowden started looking for alternatives, but soon discovered he’d have to buy a field for the team to use. Along with his wife Margaret, Bowden went on the hunt for a house in central Massachusetts with enough land to accommodate the Camels’ practice sessions. They needed a home for their small family – they already had one son, with another on the way – and in November 1967, they found it: in Sutton.
The home had 15 acres of land that included a three-acre “field” with a five-foot red cedar tree in the middle and a smattering of hedges and shrubs crawling across it. The field had potential. It just needed a lot of work. There were boulders in the centre of the field that needed to be excavated. Once, Bowden accidentally set the field on fire when a trash can he was burning brush in tipped over. The fire department put the blaze out before it reached the home. The team tried to practice on a patch near the field until it was ready, but found it too small to do anything meaningful. Soon, neighbourhood kids saw the adults playing and decided they wanted a piece of the action.
Bowden pulled out a small, dark orange, heavy plastic size three ball that he’d brought with him from England, and handed it to the kids to kick around. With goals made of small trees buried in the ground, a branch tied at both ends for a crossbar, the kids took to the game.
In 1970 the Camels took to the field next to Bowden’s house to play a few games. Neighbourhood kids flocked to watch them. Bowden had passed on the footballing bug he’d caught at the same age. That spring, kids started knocking on his back door, asking if his children would come out and play with the mysterious orange ball. Margaret warned Bowden not to get too involved with the kids, but it was too late. He had already begun organising teams for the kids to play on.
“All the kids started coming in, so I started dividing them up into different teams from different regions [in town]: Hartford Tigers, Mendon Rovers, the Fuller Mosquitos,” Bowden says. “I had these kids playing in leagues and they started swarming in and in the end we had 40 or 50 kids coming in.
“We had our own little league. I treated them like they were professionals,” he continues. “I wrote commentaries on the games and went into Clark and made photocopies and then delivered them to the mailboxes.”
Football is an organic game. It doesn’t require much – just a few bodies and a ball. Goals can be fashioned out of anything. For Bowden and the kids of Sutton, that meant tree limbs. For other kids across the world, it can mean two shirts, trash cans or baskets on the ground. Even the ball doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be trash bundled together, or clothes wrapped tightly into a ball. The game is universal and it takes over the imagination. In small-town Sutton it provided a new experience.
The kids that came to Bowden’s house eventually formed a club, the Fuller Hamlets, that still survives today. But Bowden is despondent about the future of American soccer. He tells me it has lost its way in the face of corporate clubs. People are now making money off the sport – and off the dreams of young kids. Parents are shelling out thousands of dollars for their kids to play for giant club teams with fancy jerseys and logos and paid coaches. They’ve lost their way from the grassroots of the game.
“It’s a different ball game now,” Bowden says. “In 2000, capitalism and corporations took over. To do that you have to have 50 to 80 teams. They are able to give scholarships to the players who they recruit in the top. They are packing those teams and the American middle class is quite willing to pay to be part of these monster corporation teams.”
Youth soccer around the world is going through troublesome times. Every country seems to be looking for the best way to develop the next crop of great players. But in America, those answers seem further away than in most other places. The country is vast, as Bowden learned, and home to countless micro-cultures. Capitalism, and the need to make money, has infiltrated all walks of life, especially sports.
Until recently there was only a limited academy system in America. Even now, clubs don’t start recruiting and training players until their teenage years. For the most part, football in the US grew organically as a result of immigration; clubs were formed either by mill owners, who imported foreigners to play on their teams and work in their textile mills, or by local immigrant populations themselves. Later, towns and communities set about forming leagues for children to compete in. That, in turn, led to travelling teams and clubs. It wasn’t long before teams figured out how to make money off the game. Parents are now obliged to pay for their kids to tryout to play for a team; youth clubs have multiple teams in each age group and can charge upwards of $10,000 a year. The hopes are that better youth teams and paid coaches will improve kids’ chances of gaining a college scholarship or of turning professional. In reality, there are painfully few scholarships available, and fewer than one percent of all athletes of high school age go on to become a professional at any sport, never mind soccer.
I routinely watch youth soccer games, either for work or because the games surround the adult league I play in on weekends. What I see are teams working the system, not to develop talent or have kids enjoy a game, but to make money and win. It’s for the glory of adults who want to live vicariously through the kids on the field. It’s lost the lustre and glory of the pick-up games where communities came together and we learned to dream of someday being like Tommy Lawton.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of covering Sutton’s high school soccer teams. They weren’t a top-level team with a ton of talent, and they certainly weren’t playing on the best fields, but what I saw were kids playing the game the right way. They played the ball on the ground and understood the nuances of how to play in a back-four and a 4-2-3-1. What I found out was that most of the kids on the field, both boys and girls, had some sort of connection to Bowden’s Fuller Hamlets.