Non-league football is often marketed as a low cost alternative to the Premier League but, as Paul Eke writes, that might not always be as accurate as we might think.

Anyone who read my recent TwoHundredPerCent paean to Redheugh Park will have realised that Gateshead Football Club is something close to my heart. After all, travelling from Gateshead to (eg) Wycombe Wanderers (and losing to a last minute goal) is not something done on a whim. That doesn’t make me anything special, in fact it’s a regular experience for thousands of people and will be familiar to many or even most readers of TwoHundredPerCent, but it indicates a level of dedication those same readers will be able to identify with. So it may surprise you to know that I no longer go to watch Gateshead – it’s too expensive. What I haven’t done, however, is stop watching live football.

In fact, I’m a season ticket holder – at a Premiership club. So how on earth can I justify watching Premier League football rather than Blue Square Premier on financial grounds? At a time when Premier League ticket prices are widely believed to have priced the ‘average’ fan out of the grounds, that may seem somewhat surprising, and it must be admitted that it requires a subjective assessment of the ‘worth’ of one level of football compared to another, but I believe a justifiable case can be made. I’m also aware that it leaves me open to accusations of being a kind of footballing dilletante, floating wherever the wind blows me, but I would beg to differ. After all, the Premiership club in question is Newcastle United, so I can hardly be accused of being a glory-hunter can I?

The Redheugh Park article mentioned above also contained details of my first experience of ‘proper’ football, at St. James’s Park in Football League Division One, and I have always led a sort of bipolar football-supporting existence. Again, while some zealots would insist this is not possible, others will readily identify with the idea of supporting one club in the Football League and another in Non League football. So when I go to watch Newcastle, I do so as a supporter as passionate as any other and not as some kind of casual observer. When Cheikh Tiote volleyed Newcastle’s equaliser in the 4-4 draw with Arsenal last season (when Newcastle came from 4-0 down) I assure you I did not stand to politely applaud, I leapt for the skies with fists clenched and bellowed like a demented moose). And the idea of Gateshead and Newcastle ever being in the same orbit so that a choice had to be made always seemed faintly rediculous barring an FA Cup-draw miracle.

So let’s get down to brass tacks, while pointing out that in the locality of Gateshead FC another Premier League team does exist (though none shall speak their name) and their season tickets can be obtained at prices lower than my Newcastle ticket, so provided those from the dark place can make the same justification as I do the price comparison tilts even further in their favour. As I stuck around during the Championship season, I received a 10% discount for the 2010/11 season. My ticket price (the cheapest adult ticket at Newcastle bar the Family Enclosure) is therefore £504.00. This price will remain fixed until 2020/21 under Mr Ashley’s 10-year deal as long as I keep renewing. For 19 home league games that works out at 26-53 per game. At Gateshead a season ticket for 2011/12 costs £280.00 but if purchased before the end of June an ‘early bird’ discount of 15-00 applied making the cost £265.00 for twenty-three league games or £11.53 per game, 46% of the cost per game at Newcastle. Let’s round it up a bit and say that football at Newcastle costs twice as much as at Gateshead – is it worth it?

Obviously my vote has been firmly cast in the affirmative, and one of the deciding factors in that decision must be the soul-destroying experience of watching football in a crowd numbering in the hundreds at the International Stadium, where the pitch is separated from the pitch by the athletics track and the atmosphere is non-existent. Even when the crowd was over 5,000 for the visit of Darlington in the FA Trophy Semi-Final 2nd Leg (a game I DID attend – the prospect of Gateshead at Wembley was too much to ignore) the sound just drifted away into the Tyneside air. But let’s not forget the role of the players – though I want to see them leave the pitch having been humiliated by a display of breathtaking Newcastle brilliance, there’s something to be said for seeing the likes of Rooney, Drogba, Gerrard, Febregas, et al playing on the pitch right in front of your eyes. With all due respect to the likes of the journeymen of Histon, Ebbsfleet, Southport etc. I rarely anticipate their visits with the same fervour.

So there it is, my case is made, it’s now up to you the jury to decide if it’s justified, but my opinion is that an admission price of 14-00 at the turnstile (2011/12 price of admission at Gateshead) for Blue Square Premier football is simply too much in the North East of England and is certainly enough to deter the casual spectator. I believe Gateshead’s attendances support my case, although whether you can support the other side of my argument is another matter. I don’t know if it applies to the Blue Square Premier but I do know some Leagues have applied a minimum admission price in the past, which doesn’t allow clubs to decide for themselves what their local market will stand, although Gateshead are trying to attract the next generation of supporters by admitting all under-16’s for a flat-rate of £2.00. Gateshead also include a free programme for all season ticket holders and admission to four pre-season friendlies, but I haven’t included the programme etc in the Newcastle cost because you don’t have to buy them. The alternate view, of course, is that I’m just too tight to pay £14.00 to watch non-league football, something I would find hard to refute – any others like me out there?

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