Bootbags descend on the marshes from all corners Studs chatter across the carpark.
Like a birdsong, each ref has his own pitch signal, The final whistle is the most harmonious.
Knee supports mark those dogged by injury, Canned Heat mixed with liquid energy.
As players siphon every last drop from their careers, Clean as a whistle but with muddy ears.
On Sundays Hackney Marsh plays host to the one of the oldest surviving amateur football leagues in the country: the Hackney and Leyton Football League. Now in its 70th season, the League brings together 4 divisions, 52 teams and 728 players of varying skill, background, age and profession.
Johnnie Walker, Chairman of The Hackney and Leyton League, is responsible for keeping the heart of grassroots football beating.
Born in the Italian Quarter of Clerkenwell in the 1930’s, Johnnie was one of twelve football-mad kids. He started playing at the Marshes as a schoolboy and in 1949 - at only 15 years old - he played his first match in The Hackney and Leyton League. “There was about 120 odd pitches, some of ‘em were what I would call ‘Mickey Mouse’ pitches. We was all on top of one another, when you took a corner kick you were virtually on the same bloody pitch!” Over the years, the marshes have been the site of many fond memories for Johnnie: "I've had many great experiences on the marshes, some of them as a player".
The sport has moved on a lot since Johnnie Walker won medals with MG Sports: football has become a global business. Even amateur football has seen significant changes. 31 warm, modern changing rooms complete with a café now flank the pitches at Hackney Marshes. “It’s a different age. We used to wash and change in little dark huts, freezing cold and when you come off the pitches you had to wash in cold water troughs!” Johnnie recalls. It isn’t just the facilities that have changed around here though; the style of the game has also evolved greatly, although in Johnnie’s eyes not always for the best. “It’s faster now, but it’s not harder. It was more physical years ago. You used to get stuck in, ‘no quarter given, no quarter asked they used to say.’”
Despite yearly funding cuts in grassroots football, you'd have thought that the historical Hackney Marshes should be one of the first places the FA would want to preserve. As Chairman of the league for eleven years, Johnnie has firm opinions on the matter. “It annoys me that the FA don’t do enough to maintain their interest especially at the younger level. They want to be ploughing money in to this kind of grassroots football. I have written to the last four chairmen, they write back to be fair, saying ‘Of course grassroots is in our mind’ and all that. It’s a load of old cobblers: they don’t even know what grassroots football is. You never see anyone come over here and see what’s going on.”
So the future of grassroots football at the Marshes remains, for now at least, in the hands of Johnnie and a handful of dedicated volunteers who put everything into making sure Hackney Marshes’ pitches and facilities can be used for generations to come. “The good thing at the moment is that there’s a youth league. It's just gaining a bit of momentum. I hope that it keeps up. There's a legacy as long as the facilities are kept up and people keep coming”.
"The marshes has a rich history of serving grassroots football for all. This iconic facility is known all over the world. It is vital that the future is safeguarded for our youngsters".
If Johnnies boundless enthusiasm and enduring love for the marshes can be passed down to the youth league youngsters, then amateur leagues like The Hackney and Leyton League will remain firmly in good hands and the Marshes will retain its status as the spiritual home of grassroots football in fifty year’s time. As long as the grass remains and crisp white lines mark out the marauding contours of each pitch, Hackney’s amateur footballers will continue to haul themselves out of bed every Sunday and get stuck in to 90 minutes of their weekend fantasy.
ACCOMPANYING FILM: law-mag.com