So world club football comes to a sudden halt as we enter the international break. As the weekend’s Premier League football comes to a close, people begin moaning about the return of international football and begrudging the loss of the ‘real’ football (and I’m sure it’s the same in many parts of the world). I for one love international football, partly because I’m a very proud Welshman who loves watching his beloved home nation play football; if I can enjoy watching Wales (attempt to) play football, then I feel no-one else has any excuses. However, I’m not here to talk about international football or my love of Wales (we’d be here a while), but instead another perk that arises from international football weeks: that perk is National Non-League Day.
Regardless of what Sky will have you believe in this country, football existed before 1992 and there is even football below the Premier League. More amazingly there is even football played below the 92 league clubs! What?! May I introduce you to non-league football – a place many might argue is the last bastion of the soul of football. A home for those people who tweet #AMF, but actually mean it. A place where you can taste football in its most pure form.
Like many things in the world these days, Non-League Day was created via social media in 2010 by James Doe after he went to a pre-season game at Tavistock with Queens Park Rangers and was inspired by the home team’s humble setting and setup. Doe pushed through a day that would celebrate the thousands of local teams scattered across the UK and hopefully introduce more people to non-league football clubs that, perhaps unbeknownst to them, are sitting on their doorstep. It’s safe to say that since 2010, that the press, support and coverage behind Non-League Day has exploded into life and the day is now celebrated annually as part of the football calendar. Many big names are on board with promoting the day and the day even boasts Sky Sports legend Martin Tyler as it’s official ambassador.
Despite being born and bred in the South Wales Valleys, I’ve lived in the north-west of England for three years now, which has sadly resulted in me being unable to make regular trips to the Liberty Stadium to cheer on my beloved Swansea City. However, this has brought with it certain advantages. My sometimes Swansea-less weekends coupled with my Lost Boyos blog (I wrote an article on my groundhopping exploits only a matter of months ago on this very site) have led me in the direction of a new realm – the realm of non-league football. I was a non-league virgin only 2 years ago, yet now I can’t get enough of it.
So what has made me fall in love with non-league football so much and why should you go along and check out your local club?
Much of the snobbery aimed at non-league football usually comes from people (who have usually never attended a non-league game in their life) deriding the quality of the football on show. Obviously, you are not going to witness the Messis and Ronaldos of the world, but it is because of this that you get to witness some enthralling, full-blooded and genuinely end-to-end games. Ask me what’s the best game I watched on my travels last season and I would not reel off one of the many Premier League games that I witnessed or any international contests attended; no, without thinking I’d declare it was the 4-3 thriller between Atherton Collieries and AFC Darwen at Atherton’s Alder Street home, a game which had absolutely everything you could possibly want from a football match: good goals, plenty of cards, penalties, real tackling (with no diving or rolling around on the floor for ten minutes), a woeful, yet entertaining refereeing team, some great passages of play and a last-minute winner for Colls to seal the 3 points. It was truly breathtaking stuff.
Ashley Williams, Craig Dawson, Anthony Pilkington, Michael Kightly and Chris Smalling are just a few examples of players who have gone from non-league football to the Premier League in the past decade. Only recently Dwight Gayle was scoring his first Premier League goal for Crystal Palace, yet (as the commentators are surely to let us know every time he scores from now on) little over two years ago he was scoring goals for Bishop Stortford and Stansted in the basement leagues of English football. There is certainly plenty of quality to be found in non-league football and it really is a great breeding ground for future talent. Even delving further back, the likes of Stan Collymore, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Stuart Pearce all made their name in non-league football before going on to be Premier League and England greats.
I recently took my best mate to his first ever non-league match, the big Walton-on-Thames derby between Walton & Hersham FC and Walton Casuals FC, and when I asked him at the final whistle what he thought of it, the first thing he said was that he couldn’t believe how good the quality of the football was. This was in The Ryman Isthmian League Division One South – the 8th tier of English football. Yes, believe it or not there is some genuinely quality football being played in non-league.
Don’t be put off – quality, and definitely entertainment, is there in abundance in non-league football.
Throughout British football, the sight of ‘Against Modern Football’ signs and the tweeting of the hashtag ‘#AMF’ are becoming more and more prevalent as fans are beginning to show their disdain towards all seater stadiums, expensive food and the perpetual rising price of matchday tickets. To go watch Swansea City play these days I could end up paying anything between £30 and £50s; yet my stubborn love of Swansea City is ultimately going to lead to me paying these extortionate prices to watch them play their admittedly sumptuous football. However, price-wise it could be worse I suppose: incredibly, Manchester City fans travelling to West Ham are expected to pay in the region of £70 for a ticket for their upcoming game at Upton Park, which quite frankly is a joke.
I recently read an interesting article on the Football Ramble website by Matt Rogerson titled the Myth of Non-League Affordability detailing how football in the Blue Square Conference leagues (tiers 5th and 6th of the English league and now rebranded as the Skrill Conference) are not as cheap as many perceive. Many of the teams at that level of non-league are ex-Football League teams maintaining professional status and large stadiums and fanbases (e.g. Wrexham and to Luton to name just two) and tickets can cost up to £19. However, there is much more to non-league than the Skrill Premier and the Skrill North and South leagues. I’ve personally revelled in the thrills and spills of my two regional umbrella leagues since I’ve moved to the north-west: the Evo-Stik Northern Leagues and the North West Counties Football League. Entry is between £3-8 and for that price I’ve witnessed some truly superb games of football with some memorable goals. Throw in the fact that the food is usually around the £1.50 mark, Tea/Coffee less than a £1 and programmes, which are usually lovingly put together by fans and volunteers of the club for absolutely nothing, sell for £1, you could have yourself a great day at the football for £10-15 quite easily. Don’t expect prawn sandwiches though.
I’m going to pick on Chelsea here sorry, but it’s hard to imagine how a local of the affluent Kings Road area of London truly feels a part of their club these days. Chelsea is a multinational company run by a Russian oligarch and the fans are merely the consumers of a product. You could replace Chelsea’s name with virtually every Premier League and the majority of the Football League clubs in that statement really. Non-league clubs puts the fans before anything – in fact many are directly run by the fans.
Up and down the non-league grounds of the UK, fans can be found selling their club’s programmes around the ground, writing the programmes themselves, running the turnstiles, attending the car parks, serving the food and drinks and doing practically anything possible to keep their club running and to make the club as welcoming a place for visitors as possible.
A welcome! That’s one thing you won’t get at a Premier League ground this season – take your money and run is the usual stance of a Premier League setup. However, if there is one thing a non-league club provides more than anything it is a welcome. It doesn’t matter who you support or if you’ll ever show up at their ground again, that welcome will be there; and it won’t be in the pursuit of trying to brainwash you into supporting their club either – they just want to show you a piece of their passion and make their club seem as wonderful for you as it is for them.
Of course, there are some clubs that take the whole ‘fan community’ that little bit further with the fans’ owning part or all of the club: clubs such as Wrexham, the recently formed phoenix clubs of 1874 Northwich and Darlington 1883, and even my hometown club Merthyr Town FC. However, perhaps the club that truly embraces fan power more than any other is FC United of Manchester – the club which was formed as an offshoot of Manchester United in protest against the Glazer family takeover and the general money-orientated, corporate direction of the Old Trafford club. The club, which prides itself on its ‘punk football’ ethos, is 100% owned by the fans with every fan having a vote on a whole series of important club decisions; season tickets are on a ‘pay what you want’ basis (within reason of course) and the atmosphere created by the fans is one of the best I’ve experienced in any league, not just non-league – the FCUM fans relentlessly sing for the whole 90 minutes, regardless of what is going on on the field.
I’m still very much a Swansea City fan, but no club I’ve visited in non-league has cared about that – every club has welcomed me, obviously some more than others, and if you were to attend a game this weekend it would be exactly the same for you.
Obviously, as a groundhopper one of my favourite parts of non-league football is visiting the grounds. Unlike the ‘identikit’ stadiums you find up and down the country in the Premier League and Football League (yes, I include the rather ordinary looking Liberty Stadium in that statement), non-league grounds come bursting with character with a number of wonderful individual quirks to entertain the visiting spectators. OK, so a lot of the time you find parts of the ground rusting away or the odd crumbling stand, but that’s part of the rustic charm of non-league football. At a non-league ground you feel you are breathing in the lifeblood of the club and experiencing the club’s history. And no visit to a non-league ground visit is complete without a visit to the clubhouse for a pre-match (and post-match) drink with the local fans.
In my groundhopping article for this site, I mentioned one of my criteria for what makes a good ground is usually the location and although you’ll find a lot of non-league grounds in small, sometimes isolated, towns, they can undoubtedly provide you with some stunning scenery. Places such as Mossley and Glossop located just East near the Peak District offer beautiful scenery around the ground, especially Mossley which has arguably one of the most scenic backdrops to any ground in English football with the hills rising above the ground in the distance. Only a couple of months I visited Welsh League (essentially non-league) club Glantraeth FC and their ground had easily the most scenic backdrop of any club I’ve visited with the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia standing proud in the distance. You won’t find anything quite as enchanting at the Emirates or Old Trafford anytime in the near future.
Also, for your measly priced ticket you can, most of the time, position yourself in any part of the ground you wish instead of being prescribed a specific seat. I used the word ‘positioned’ as you can actually stand! This is one of my favourite things about the world of non-league football – a world where you can still stand at football and the standing terrace reigns supreme. Why the Premier League doesn’t follow the Bundesliga’s lead with safe standing terraces – or at least give it a go – I do not know. Anyway, non-league has standing terraces (of course, there is seating as well for those of a more relaxed or elderly nature) and I think that that is just marvellous.
And finally, the pies. The bloody pies! Unlike the cheap, crappy pies that are brought into Premier League stadiums en masse and sold at a typically high price, the pie is the king of the culinary world in the lower levels of football. Chips: no. Burgers: no. Hot dogs: no. Pies are the ultimate football food and nowhere does them better than non-league (apart from Morecambe FC maybe, but they are essentially a non-league club that has begun punching over their weight over the past few years). Just like everything else in non-league the pies by most clubs are usually lovingly put together by the volunteers at the club to ensure the customer gets full satisfaction. Of course, you’ll find some places that do ‘dud’ pies, but overall the pie-eating experience as a fulcrum of a non-league experience (well, for me anyway).
I’d be a hypocrite if I said I was against modern football, as I enjoy the Premier League too much and I’ve put enough money into watching it, yet I can’t help but embrace the non-league scene at the same time, a place where at times I think they’ve just got football…well, right. So, if you are bored this weekend and are downhearted after watching a predictably dull and dreary England performance on the Friday night, get yourself along to your local club on Saturday afternoon and give non-league football a crack. There will not just be one man and his dog there; there will be entertaining football; it will be cheap; you will meet friendly and welcoming people; and it will be cheap. However, most important of all, I promise that you’ll have a good time. Where will I be going for Non-League Day? Well, I’m catching the steam engine from Bury right into the train station next to Ramsbottom United’s ground . Now that is different.