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.