What would you rank as the greatest footballing success story of the last twenty years? Inevitably, your minds are drawn towards the Premier League, the all-seater stadia and your Sky Saturday bonanza, but you’re mistaken. It took a lot of pain at Hillsborough and the pricing out of the game’s traditional working class support, but it was always odds-on that, of all the European leagues, the Premier League would be the first to really go global. It was a league set up for purely commercial reasons. At the dawn of the global media era, the Premier League didn’t just buy in foreign players, but swamped its market with them. It also had the massive advantage of being the only major football league in the world at the time that spoke the world’s second language, English. This gave it a massive advantage in the key Far East and US markets. It was bound to succeed.
The biggest footballing success of the last twenty years has been the continuing growth of lower league football, and the fact that, in spite of gargantuan marketing efforts of the big clubs, lower division and non-league football is still thriving and has a bright future in front of it. It is undoubtedly true that the big Premier League clubs are marketing themselves like no football clubs have ever marketed themselves before. They dominate all the cup competitions at home and in Europe, they dominate the media to such an extent that it’s not even that easy to find about what’s going on at other Premier League clubs any more, and they have moved into the global market with unparalleled success. Yet, something about this doesn’t feel right. If they are so dominant, why is non-league football in the healthiest state that it has been in for forty years? Why are Premier League crowds falling, while crowds in almost every other league in England are rising? Shouldn’t we all be Manchester United fans by now?
For the last two decades or so, numerous people involved at the top level of the English game have told us that it is “unsustainable” to have so many professional clubs. Small clubs, we are told, aren’t “cost-effective”. Yet they’re still there and they’re growing. Last season, there were 112 professional clubs in England. Only two clubs in the Football League have gone bust in the last twenty years, and none have since 1992. Now, I know what you’re thinking. He would say that. Consider this, though. Manchester United are in the most precarious financial position that they’ve been in since JH Davies saved Newton Heath from bankruptcy and changed their name. Chelsea are entirely reliant on the continuing benevolence of Roman Abramovich. Arsenal are mortgaged to the hilt thanks to the construction of The Emirates Stadium to such an extent that failure to qualify for the Champions League would be little short of a financial disaster for them. Liverpool are joining those three in the “Big Club, Big Debt” group, following the leveraged buy-out by Gillett and Hicks. Elsewhere in the division, six out of the other sixteen clubs can only fill 85% or less the capacity of their stadia, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that 15% of a 40,000 capacity stadium is 6,000 empty seats on average. At the wrong end of the scale, poor old Blackburn can only fill just over two-thirds of the 31,000 capacity Ewood Park.
According to logic, there should be no-one left to go to non-league football matches at all, but the truth is somewhat different. Here’s a little summary of non-league crowds for last season:
The Conference – crowds up to 1,907 from 1,799 the year before.
Conference North – Five clubs with average crowds over 900 (none of whom were promoted).
Conference South – Average crowds identical to the season before in spite of losing Weymouth, whose crowds were three or four times the league average during the 2005-2006 season.
Ryman Premier – Crowds up 5%, in spite of a drop at AFC Wimbledon and six teams (two divisions below the Conference!) averaging 500 or more.
Ryman One South – Over 1,000 average at Dartford, and over 800 average at Dover. A 4,100 capacity crowd for Dartford’s first match at their new ground. Overall, crowds up 23%.
Ryman One North – Okay, crowds down here, but AFC Hornchurch averaged over 400, and the figures were skewed slightly by Canvey dropping down from the Conference.
Southern Premier – Overall down 15%, but averages of over 800 at Kings Lynn and Bath City.
Southern 1 Midland – Up 4% and would have been higher had it not been for Aylesbury United getting chucked out of their ground and their crowds being halved (more underhand shenanigans there, I think).
Southern 1 South & West – Up 10% on the year before.
Northern Premier League – Up 24%. A 1,560 average at AFC Telford United, and only 5 out of 22 sides reporting lower crowds than the year before.
Northern Premier League Division One – Down by an average of three people per match (1.8%) over the course of the season. Crowds in one of the new divisions of this league will sky-rocket with FC United in it.
Why, then, is this happening? The short answer would be to say that the Premier League is eating itself. For two adults and two children to go to a Premier League match now will often cost well over £150, and that’s before anything else has been paid for. Well, someone has to pay for Craig Bellamy’s court fines and Robbie Savage’s Rolexs. I suspect that there’s more to it than that, though. People don’t want to pay for those court fines and Rolexs any more. Neither do they want to pay for John Terry’s car crash of a wedding or for Carlton Cole to rack up Baby Bentleys on HP until he can’t pay for them any more and gets them all repossessed. Much has been written of the collapse of society’s institutions over the last few years, and football clubs, especially non-league clubs, are starting to react to this. Whether it’s through PASE academy schemes linking clubs with colleges, expansive youth team schemes (AFC Wimbledon currently run teams right the way down to the under-8 level) or opening up facilities for hire to local community groups, they’re starting to realise that there is a gap that can be filled while the big clubs are chasing replica shirt sales in the Far East and North America.
The benefits of this are noticeable. Non-league clubs are never going to get back to the golden age of amateur football in the 1940s and 1950s, when they could attract crowds of two or three thousand for regular league matches. Those days have gone. Between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s, crowds plummeted and it looked as if it may pass on altogether. Non-league football is surprisingly resilient, though, and more adaptable than you might think. In the late 1970s, the Southern League and Northern Premier League lost its best clubs to form the Alliance Premier League, and within just eight years they had talked the Football League into ending the farce of re-election (more on that at a later date – possibly even tomorrow) and introducing automatic promotion relegation. The Conference of 1986 was unrecognisable in comparison with this year’s vintage. The champions, Enfield, averaged crowds of just under 900. This year, the average crowd in the league overall was just over twice that amount.
Non-league football has lost a few clubs along the way – Scarborough and Farnborough Town went this summer – but this is more to do with the asset-stripping of individuals that got involved with the running of the clubs than anything to do with the economics of running a non-league football club. The fact of the matter is that the smaller amounts of money required to buy a club attract a certain type of person, and even superficially small clubs occasionally own their own grounds – making them a target for unscrupulous property developers. However, the disillusionment that is starting to dig in towards “big” football, increased community involvement and, increasingly supporters trust ownership, are starting to make their presence felt. The two Football League clubs that folded in the early 1990s, Maidstone United and Aldershot, are back as non-league clubs. Even Dartford, who were dragged down by the currents from Maidstone’s collapse, have a brand new stadium and have average crowds over 1,000 – and they as far removed from even the Conference as Rochdale are from Manchester United. As the new season looms large on the horizon, the ranks of disenfranchised will continue to swell, and the lower leagues can only profit from this.