It’s Non-League Day tomorrow, but you already knew that, didn’t you? The brain-child of Mike Bayly – occasionally of this parish – and James Doe is celebrating its second annual event this weekend, and the extent to which non-league football has embraced the idea has been refreshing, to say the least. Many clubs are offering reduced entry to season-ticket holders of Premier League clubs and there are a number of other incentives for people to turn up being thrown around by various differing clubs, of which the most intriguing must surely be the Blue Square Ground Hop, which will offer the insatiable amongst us the opportunity to watch three matches in the three divsions of the Football Conference - Bishop’s Stortford versus Boston United in the Blue Square North at 12.30, Chelmsford City versus Dover Athletic in the Blue Square South at 3.30 and Braintree Town versus Lincoln City in the Blue Square South at 7.00.
That particular event is, perhaps, for the more dedicated amongst us. For the rest, there is plenty going on elsewhere the length and breadth of the country – indeed, as has been pointed out elsewhere, no-one in England is more than thirty-five miles – so most supporters can probably get to a game, should they choose to. It is also worth pointing out that to lump all non-league football together as one entity could be described as doing it something of a disservice. Non-league football is all the colours of the rainbow, from an experience which still feels like a Football League club in all bar name, such as at, say, Luton Town, Wrexham or Grimsby Town, right the way down to clubs that feel like social clubs attached to them and those that still avail themselves of roped-off park pitches. Some clubs, such as FC United of Manchester, feel openly political, whilst a few others, such as Corinthian of the Isthmian League, still carry on what is left of the once-great amateur tradition. All human life is there.
What the overwhelming majority of these clubs do have in common, though, is that they are usually the overlooked clubs of English football and that, perhaps as a direct consequence of this, they tend to live a hand to mouth existence, dealing in amounts of money that are almost literally loose change to clubs in the Premier League. There are now plenty of Premier League players who earn £100,000 per week and several that earn conspicuously more than that. This is the sort of money that many clubs would treat as the annual wage bill for their entire team, and many more that would consider even that to be untold riches. This fact in itself hints at the reason why Non-League Day is so important. A few thousand pounds can be a life-saving amount of money for smaller clubs and, without wishing to turn to cliche, every penny and every pound can make a difference. If a non-league club can make a few hundred pounds from events such as that taking place tomorrow, it can really make a difference to that club.
There can be a tendency to romanticise and even sentimentalise non-league football. There are a lot of people that will call non-league football “real football”, and certainly at most non-league clubs there is an opportunity to get or feel closer to the players and the club itself. There are, however, as many charlatans and carpet-baggers in the non-league game as anywhere else, as well as managers that act like fools, occasional outbreaks of crowd trouble and voraciously money-obsessed players. Few would say that the non-league game is complete idyllic and it would be disingenous to claim that it was, but the feeling of watching something that isn’t bloated, being torn asunder by money and which is still in touch with its roots can be a powerful one and, regardless any of this, there are reasons as outlined above with make a solid, practical case for supporting your local non-league club, perhaps for a day, perhaps for longer.
Perhaps the proudest claim that English football can still make in the twenty-first century is its strength in depth. When Chester FC played FC United of Manchester in the Northern Premier League a couple of weeks ago, well over 3,000 people turned out on a mid-week evening in August to watch a match in a regional seventh division of our league system. There can be times at which it feels as all of this is taken for granted . That the work of the thousands of volunteers, staff and players just to get this plethora of matches on in the first place gets neither the praise nor the attention that it deserves. If Non-League Day means more than a few more pounds in the pockets of some hard up semi-professional football clubs, then all the better, but this is also our opportunity to say thanks to a part of the landscape of our game, without which we would be very much worse off.