A Conversation with Will Simpson - Co-author of 'Freedom Through Football: The Story of the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls'
The Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls, hailing from Bristol, are more than worthy of the tagline “Britain’s most intrepid sports club”. They boast numerous teams across several leagues and levels, a penchant for travelling to war zones and a (optional, but popular) level of political involvement that sees members fighting for causes both locally and worldwide, the club stand out starkly in a world of sport so often diluted by commercialisation and the mentality of success at any cost.
Co-author Will Simpson took on the challenge of producing a history of the club in his book ‘Freedom Through Football’ - and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy from the man himself at last year’s Anarchist Bookfair in London. It’s a great read, taking you through the jungles of Chiapas to the public parks of Compton via the streets of Gaza - but all firmly rooted in the experience of an ever expanding group of friends on the Sunday League pitches of Bristol. What began with booze sessions in the infamous 'Plough’ pub has continued to grow and adapt into a sprawling and diverse sporting network. I decided to contact Will to find out a bit more about the process of compliling the book and his long-standing relationship with a group of people that have been challenging any reasonable expectations of a sports club since 1992. He kindly got back in touch and here’s the results…
Football is Radical:
How long did it take yourself and Malcolm McMahon to put together the book “Freedom Through Football”? What inspired you to get the history of the club and its activities over the years down on paper?
Will Simpson: Myself and Malcolm first talked about doing the book in 2004. So from conception to completion it’s taken eight years in all. Of those, five years were spent faffing around, there were two years of solid work and one year of editing/ negotiating. I suppose there were several reasons for doing it - one) because we were all getting older and getting these stories down on paper was a better idea than having them lost forever and two) cos the club deserves a book. Even if we say so ourselves we are more interesting than most amateur sports clubs - hopefully people who’ve never heard of us will be interested in it.
In your book you talk about the difference of interests of people involved with the club - how there were people eager for the club to focus on wider political issues (particularly with some of the trips abroad), whilst others’ prioritised local campaigns, the social side or simply on the sports alone. Has it been a challenge balancing the different interests of those involved as the club has grown?
WS: Well, every club member finds a level of participating and activity within the club with which they’re happy. Some want to get involved in the running of the club and get the club active in more political stuff like Palestine, Chiapas and other areas, and others are content just to play sport on a Saturday. All of these are valid. It’s never really been a challenge finding a balance between all this because there aren’t in conflict with one another - the club has a big enough personnel to deal with this (at the moment, at least).
To many onlookers, the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls are perceived as a fundamentally progressive and/or radical sports club. How does the club go about defining itself - if at all? For example, I remember in the book that only in recent years have you needed to take steps to 'formally’ produce a hand out to prospective members on some of your broad club values [ viewable here: http://www.eastoncowboys.org.uk/files/welcome.pdf
] Is it an issue of balancing political principles with being inclusive to members who are apolitical or entirely sports/social focused?
: I’ve always thought that one of the Cowboys/Girls’ greatest strengths is that we don’t define ourselves. We’ve been called all sorts by other people - everything from anarchists to socialists to 'that bunch of jitters’. I would say the only thing that really defines us is that we are against racism, sexism, homophobia and oppression in all forms. Which seems quite obvious and totally uncontroversial really.
You have been on some incredible trips over the years. Could you tell me about some of your favourites? Is there a particular memory that stands out?
WS: So many. Every so often they will be something that happens and you think 'this is pretty surreal’. Playing football against the separation wall in Palestine, in a clearing in the Lacondon jungle in Chiapas, Mexico. Having hundreds of Palestine kids cheering the name of your team. For me probably the sweetest was our first Alternative World Cup in 1998, just seeing different people from around the world, from very different cultures (from South Africa, Germany, Poland, Belgium, the UK and more) come together in a tiny village in Dorset and seeing how well they got on. That was the first time I felt that we, as a club, had done something truly extraordinary. We all felt really proud.
The club has been involved in organising some big events over the years - community campaigns, hosting tournaments and so on. How did you deal with co-ordinating such big events and have you got anything in the pipeline for the future?
WS: Boringly the answer to that is by being democratic - we have regular meetings whenever there’s a big tournament coming up - by being organised and by having loads of people pulling their weight. So far it’s worked every time. We don’t have anything big planned at the moment - well, nothing we can tell you about yet anyway.
When organising such events - or in general club business - your book seems to speak of a really democratic and bottom-up way of doing things that is contrary to most sport clubs. How do you reach decisions as a club? Is it a case of people passionate in a particular project pursuing it as they like or does there have to be some kind of consensus from the members?
WS: See above. One of the Cowboys/ Girls’ golden rules is 'if you say you’re going to do something, do it’. If someone has an idea they are encouraged to get on with and are (usually) given help with it.
A bit of a broad question here but how do you see the connection between sport and politics? I feel like sport, particularly football, is so engrained in society’s fabric that it is almost impossible to divorce the two even if people do not realise it.
WS: Well, this is a personal opinion - I’m not speaking for the club here - but I’m of the school of thought that everything is political. Only fools (and Sepp Blater) believe in some make believe world where sport and politics can be magically separated.
You have made some really interesting links as a club with sporting clubs all over the UK and the world. Could you tell us about some of them and how you have built and cultivated those links?
WS: We either approach them, or they approach us. With FC Autonomos from Brazil, one of our guys was just trawling through the internet one day and stumbled upon this anarchist team from Sao Paulo and sent them an email. That led to our first tour out there in 2009. With a team from the UK like Republica Internationale from Leeds one Cowboy used to play for them and suggested that they might be a good team to invite to one of our tournaments.
: Finally, could you let everyone know how they can get a copy of your book - and why they should!
: It’s available from Waterstones, Amazon and through the Cowboys’ own website. Buy it cos it’s an amazing story that hopefully might actually be a bit inspiring!