EASTON COWBOYS: THE WHOS, WHATS, HOWS AND WHYS
| Will Simpson |
‘Who’ is easy enough. The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls are an amateur sports club based in inner city Bristol. We haven’t got our own ground and most people wouldn’t have heard of us. But over the years we have done some interesting things, most of which are included in a book I’ve co-written about the club that’s due to be published this summer.
The club ‘became’ the Cowboys sometime around the early summer of 1992. Its birthplace lies at Baptist Mills primary school playing field in Easton. It was here that, from the late ’80s onwards, various punks, hippies and general ne’er do wells (as well as the odd talented youngster) congregated for a regular Sunday afternoon kickaround. These were generally a lighthearted way to sweat out the previous night’s alcohol, but over time they gradually developed a more serious intent. After one session in May that year it was mooted that we might join one of the local Sunday leagues for season 1992/93. Our country music-obsessed secretary suggested that we call ourselves the Easton Cowboys. Geographically certain and pitched perfectly between self-deprecation and swagger, it wasn’t a bad choice.
Our first season didn’t go too badly — we finished in mid table. But then at the end of the season came an event that changed the whole direction of the club. We had been invited to a tournament in Stuttgart in Germany. What we found when we arrived there was something we had never encountered before — a football ‘festival’ that included music, socialising between the teams and an easy going inclusive atmosphere. We discovered that the German teams who had organised it — ASV and Neckerstrasse — were very much like us, in that they were both from the left, explicitly anti-racist and anti-fascist, and in no particular order liked punk rock, beer and football. We returned to Bristol vowing to organise our own international football festival the following year.
This we achieved in August 1994, on a piece of council-owned land tucked inside a park in suburban Bristol. We returned to Stuttgart again the following year and put on further tournaments in 1995 and 1996. More teams started to come to these events and gradually a European network began to coalesce around these annual shindigs, including clubs from Belgium, Poland and Lithuania as well as others from England and Germany.
In 1998 we held our most ambitious event yet, a three day 20-team extravaganza called ‘The Alternative World Cup’. For this we raised money to bring over a team of youngsters from the Diepkloof area of Soweto in South Africa, who duly ended up winning the tournament. The media started sniffing around our team. The whole event was filmed by Sky, who put it on their regular Football Mondiale programme.
Gaining confidence, our next adventure led west. A couple of activists who had been to the Alternative World Cup asked us whether we’d be interested in travelling to Mexico to play a series of games in the Zapatista-held communities of Chiapas. Needless to say we jumped at the chance. So moved were we by what we saw out there that a number of Cowboys and Cowgirls decided to raise funds to provide fresh water systems for the Zapatista villages. Some even got their hands dirty and worked constructing the systems themselves. A separate entity Kiptik (‘inner strength’ in the indigenous language tzetzal) is created for the purposes of this project. In the last 10 years it has raised over £100,000.
The success of the Mexico tour broadened our horizons further. The following year a Cowboys cricket side ventured to California and played a two day test match against the Compton Homies and Popz, an inner city team based in South Central LA that diverts young kids away from gang culture via the medium of cricket. A couple of years later the football team went out to Morocco to play a series of games. In 2007 a solidarity tour was organised that saw us become the first UK football team to tour the Palestinian Occupied Territories and in 2009 we ventured to Brazil. We had now played sport on five continents. Not bad for a bunch of cash-strapped punks.
The club expanded further. A Cowgirls football team is set up in 2002, then in 2004 a group of local netball players who had been going under the name ‘the Easton Crack Whores’ join forces with us and become the Cowgirls netball team. Meanwhile the last ten years has seen the men’s football team go from strength to strength, expanding to three Saturday teams, a Sunday team and two veterans teams. They’ve even won some trophies in that time.
That’s the history — the hows and the whats. But what of the whys? Aside from detailing the adventures we’ve had over the last two decades, Freedom Through Football tries to pin down the principles and ethics of the club, which aren’t quite as simple as you might first think.
The club has its roots in the punk and post-punk scenes of the 1980s and their attendant ethics of self-sufficiency and internationalism have informed the club from its earliest days. Added to this is a commitment to democracy — the club has regular mass assemblies and, unlike other set-ups where very often the same old blokes end up running the show, the Cowboys have always rotated positions of responsibility and encouraged new people to take on these posts — and inclusivity. This last element does not just include creating a non-prejudicial atmosphere in terms of race, sexuality and gender. There has never been a fixed membership of the Cowboys. It has always included supporters, partners, children, friends, in fact anyone who has participated, no matter how small their role.
In addition to this there is something that is perhaps harder to pin down — a dash of irreverence and a lot of free-spirited absurdism. The story of the Cowboys and Cowgirls is as much about the naked penalty shoot outs and fundraising parties with bizarre fancy dress themes as it is about grinding out results on a Sunday. The club has always provided a welcome home for unusual ideas, from buying a boat and sailing it to Jamaica to play football and cricket (this was seriously discussed at one club meeting in the ’90s) to the Mexico tours. These, after all, we’re sold to the club not as some dull n’ worthy exercise in solidarity but because playing football in the jungles of South East Chiapas sounded like a right laugh.
This standing for something even-if-it-is-impossible-to-pin-down has been a source of great strength down the years. We know some teams that have identified themselves specifically as ‘socialist’ or ‘anarchist’. The Cowboys has never had a set agenda or manifesto that you have to sign up to when you join. Doing such a thing would be so prescriptive, so deathly and so, well, un-Cowboyish.
Instead it’s probably better to see the club as a vehicle through which things (some of which are explicitly political) can be achieved — the solidarity tours to Mexico and Palestine being just two examples. But the club hasn’t just been engaged in struggles in glamorous far off places. In the middle of last decade we got in involved in a campaign to save an Easton playing field that a local Academy school tried to fence off. We organised a series of Community Fun Days on the field, lent our support to a scheme to protect it by converting it into a Town Green and a number of Cowboys tried to galvanise opposition to the Academy’s proposals, right down to knocking on doors and proffering petitions — local politics at its most mundane.
It’s fair to say that being a Cowboy has lead some of us down a few unexpected paths. When we first formed as the Cowboys in the early ’90s there was no intention to form a ‘sports team with a political dimension’. Many of the original team had been active politically in the ’80s, from anti-fascist work to the Anti Poll Tax movement, to more obscure local campaigns. Some were getting exhausted and playing football thus provided some relief from the self-imposed burdens of the activist lifestyle. But the mere fact that many of us had been activists in some shape or form meant that at some point the political meme that the Cowboys have always carried was likely to be activated at some point in the future. And so it proved.
At first this found expression in simple internationalism. Inviting a bunch of teams from around the world to our tournaments may not seem a terribly daring left-field thing to do, but in the context of the late ’80s and early ’90s, an era when Little Englander attitudes were still prevalent, it very much seemed so. Bringing together a team of South African kids from Soweto and a load of German and Belgian punks to a tiny village in Dorset was a statement in itself. Later of course we (or rather some people within the club) flexed that political strand more explicitly.
Over the years we’ve developed a fine intuition about what suits the club. A year or two back a local Oxfam representative tried to interest us in their ‘Don’t Drop The Ball On Aid’ campaign whereby football stars performed keepy uppies in support of writing off Third World debt. We decided to turn that one down. Getting involved with large NGOs has never felt right to us. Neither has getting involved with big business of any description. On our first Palestine tour of 2007 we were offered the chance to play a televised game against a side from Hebron in the city’s new football stadium. It might have been a great opportunity but when we found out the game would be sponsored by a major telecoms firm the team decided to turn it down, albeit after a long and meticulous debate.
Every sportsperson or sports fan believes that their club is ‘different’, but from my own personal experience I have yet to encounter another sports club quite like the Cowboys and Cowgirls. There are some with which we share similar ethics, but aren’t as heterogeneous in terms of their social makeup. There are some we feel a kinship with, but don’t have as large a membership. Many of us older Cowpeople wonder about what the future holds for the club. Can that elusive Cowboys spirit be preserved and passed on to a new generation? All I know is that for a voluntary group to keep growing, maintain a sense of purpose and preserve their spirit and ethics after 20 years is extraordinary. Most groups of individuals would have burned out by now, their initial energy long since dissipated. But year after year life in the Cowboys never gets any less interesting. Long may that continue.
Will Simpson is one of the founding members of The Easton Cowboys. He is author of Freedom Through Football: The Story Of The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls which will be published by Tangent Books this summer
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