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The First Round Proper of the FA Cup came and went with some criticism of the quality offered by the mainstream media of the non-league game. Mike Bayly was unsatisfied with the cliche and factual inaccuracy that the press offered in attempting to get to grips with the semi-professional game.
Coverage of non-league teams in the season’s FA Cup qualifying rounds may have broken new boundaries, but where the FA Cup First Round is concerned, old habits die hard. Despite an unprecedented level of information available on the internet and public record, the same shibboleths, stereotypes and inaccuracies have been trotted out in an age where obscurity appears to be a caveat for ignorance. This long standing problem appears to be wrapped up in the media’s desire to associate non-league football with consistently pejorative labels. Commentators have a disquieting habit of playing up to the “everyman” notion of non-league football in order to give the occasion unnecessary credence. Unfortunately, they remain selective in their observations, with proletarian imagery the order of the day; a shot, pass or tackle is rarely executed without at least one fleeting reference to the painters, decorators and builders who supposedly define the fabric of our semi-professional game.
Whilst there is a statistical inevitability about this – and chances are many Premier League players would be plying their trade with a Black and Decker work bench were they not roasting orange women or crashing Bentleys into lamp posts – it only serves to highlight the archaic notion that non-league football is all spit and sawdust. Wingate & Finchley of the Ryman League Premier Division have a ubiquitous smattering of window cleaners, labourers and plumbers but they also boast two teachers, a graphic designer and a sports scientist. Tim Buzaglo, the hat trick hero of Woking’s 3rd round 4-2 win at West Brom in 1991 was a well educated, softly spoken Estate Agent. From a red top perspective this was invariably a little annoying. Far better to have a roughly shaven bloke leaning out of a transit van holding a copy of The Sun. White collar workers rattle the status quo when it comes to media perceptions of the grass roots game. In the case of Dulwich Hamlet’s Francis Duku who works for a Hedge Fund, it’s enough to cause mild palpitations. As one fan observed after this weekend’s round of matches, a homogenous blue collar view of non-league football conjures up images of “pub teams with hung-over lads dodging dog shit in the local park”. Maybe this is partly the point. In order to add shape the David and Goliath context, the Haves and the Have-Nots mythology needs to be perpetuated.
It isn’t just this relentless stereotype which is at odds with the reality of the non-league game. In some cases, the lack of research and knowledge of football below the professional leagues borders on insulting. The problem is magnified when one pauses for thought on how the culture of fandom in the professional and semi-professional game significantly differs. Non-league supporters can be a curious almost pedantic bunch, with an over protective and encyclopaedic demeanour. To follow a non-league team is to take a vested interest in the whole of the grass roots game. Obviously no rule is universal, but there is a curious affinity amongst fans at this level of football born from an idea of being ‘in it together’. Yes there are rivalries, yes there is spouting off on forums, and yes there can be situations which manifest in unsavoury scenes. But non-league football is more likely to attract the idiot savant than the idiot, a person of weather beaten pragmatism who has first hand experience of life at the sharp end of football. As such, theirs is often a more objective and rational view of game at this level, far from the cosseted mass media notion that serves to pigeon hole lower league football as a bunch of plucky outsiders who live a moribund life full of failed dreams.
So, when the media start getting their facts wrong, or casually fail to do their research, it turns into something of personal umbrage. Why, for example, did Five Live suggest Redbridge played eight divisions below League Two, a level outside of the National League System which doesn’t even grant eligibility to enter the FA Cup? Do AFC Totton and Bradford Park Avenue really play in “the north and south sections of the Evo-Stik League?” Are Sutton Town – members of the Central Midlands League at Step 7 – popping open the champagne corks at the prospect of a local derby with Notts County? These may seem like minor, even pedantic observations, but the point is journalist and commentators are supposed to be paid to do their research. You might forgive a minor faux pas, but failing to get the club’s name and the league they play in right is at best lazy and at worst plain insulting, especially when said clubs are offered a rare moment in the spotlight. Then again, should we be surprised. “We had about 150 sports journalists at the news agency where I used to work” pointed out one FC Halifax Town supporter in discussion of their match against Charlton Athletic, “and no-one apart from me had a clue about life below Division Four/League Two.”
In fairness, some are guiltier than others. Last season, Jon Champion attended a game at Ossett Town as part of his preparations for FC United’s FA Cup First Round game at Rochdale, whilst Jim Beglin had at least the air of being a man who had watched other matches involving the Shaymen as they took on Charlton Athletic. Martin Tyler might also be well qualified to comment on the non-league game, having played for Corinthian-Casuals and now working as the first team coach of Kingstonian FC.
These appear to be exceptions to the rule though. John Motson could always be relied on to wheel the odd statistic out, and Gerald Sinstadt – surely only a yolk stained Parker away from being a ground-hopper himself – had a voice synonymous with lank haired men in tight shorts causing cup upsets on muddy pitches. But these are yesterday’s men. It is hard to envisage the next (or indeed current) generation of commentators having the requisite knowledge or desire to embrace non-league football, especially in the face of such a totalitarian market place. It doesn’t help when high profile Talksport presenters laugh off matches involving non-league teams by comparing them to paint drying, but why should anyone who is paid to talk (incessantly) about just a handful of over indulged clubs care about the ramifications this can have on public perception?
Ironically, there are several high ranking media figures that have gone on record with their allegiance to the non-league game, as was discovered during the last Non-League Day campaign. But it will always be a dirty secret for some, not least because the general public, like those charged with reporting on it from time to time, remain vacantly unaware of what it is and how it works. Non-League – like a Next Boxing Day sale – isn’t fashionable. At times it’s almost profane. Telling someone who has been weaned on the Premier League that you support a club in the Isthmian League is like boasting of smoking crack in a brothel full of teenage girls.
The next round of televised FA Cup games all feature league v non-league opposition and have the potential to do much for the image of semi-professional football. There is something deliberately ambiguous about the last sentence as how the pendulum swings remains to be seen. Will the focus be on academies, community work, and affordable football, or are we to be introduced to the usual collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who drive battered Austin Maestros and live in modest three bedroom semis?
Still, it’s not all bad. In many ways we should be thankful to the media for highlighting the range of trade skills our grass roots game provides. Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard may be heroes to millions across the world, but I doubt you could buy them a pint after the match and negotiate a price for repairing your boiler.
You can follow Mike Bayly on Twitter by clicking here. Alternatively, you can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Contrary to much of your post about ignorant national media Peter Drury, ITV commentator on the aforementioned Halifax game, attended a couple of the club’s games in the weeks before the FA Cup tie, talked to the manager and several of the players and even made a visit to the training in the week before the game.
But those facts don’t really fit in with your agenda here do they?
In the same way it’s best not to make out all non-league clubs as being the same, it’s probably wise not to suggest that all media is too.
I didn’t think the author *was* suggesting all media is/was the same. Given the two paragraphs beginning “In fairness, some are guiltier than others”, and “These appear to be exceptions to the rule though”, I certainly got the impression he was trying to write a balanced piece.
Don’t let that get in the way of your own agenda though eh?
Good to hear about Peter Drury’s commitment to preparation. It’s a shame he’s the exception though.
I also thought this an ill thought out piece riddled with the authors own sweeping assumptions about non-non-league football fans.
The piece starts off ripping into traditional stereotypes of non-league footballers – this is not wrong, but then the piece descends into the author’s own stereotypes of non-league fans!
“the culture of fandom in the professional and semi-professional game significantly differs.”
“To follow a non-league team is to take a vested interest in the whole of the grass roots game.”
“non-league football is more likely to attract the idiot savant than the idiot, a person of weather beaten pragmatism who has first hand experience of life at the sharp end of football.”
So let me get this right: MSM stereotyping non-league footballers is wrong because it is usually a pejorative stereotype?
But you stereotyping non-league fans in a positive way, which of course by definition stereotypes league fans in a negative light, is a-ok?
“the same shibboleths, stereotypes and inaccuracies have been trotted out in an age where obscurity appears to be a caveat for ignorance.”
or in your terms:
“the same shibboleths, stereotypes and inaccuracies have been trotted out in an age where obscurity appears to be a badge of honour.”
Look, no-one chooses what league their team plays in, some are in lower leagues, some in top flights, others in grass roots leagues, a supporter is not defined by the league their team plays in, they are defined by their own actions in supporting their club through thick and thin.
In the days leading up to the game, ITV advertised it as Halifax Town V Charlton. Even though Halifax Town no longer exists. Also a female talksport presenter, speaking about Leyton Orient v Bromley, said that Bromley players don’t even get paid.
@Dan – that’s obviously great to hear
@Matt – I base my observations on working for a non-league club, and having followed football at all levels for most of my life. Indeed, it is only in the last few years I have started watching non-league football regularly again. I fully accept that the piece could be construed as positively stereotyping non-league supporters but as pointed out, no rule is universal, and the non-league game is riddled with its own problems and short comings. I do however, stand by my assertion that there is a different supporter culture between league and non-league football. It doesn’t mean I think one set is better or more knowledgeable than the other, simply that their attitude to the sport and the nature of crowds is markedly different. Naturally these comments are virtually impossible to quantify, so one has to base it on personal observation.
You are quite correct that nobody chooses what league their team plays in – and this is partly my point. For supporters of clubs who are rarely in the spotlight by virtue of playing in the lower leagues it is annoying when you’re moment on the national stage is patronised or incorrectly referenced. It doesn’t always happen, but does far more than it should.
Either way, thanks for your comments.