It’s back. This Saturday sees the welcome return of Non-League Day. With an international break kicking the Premier League and the Football League Championship into touch for a weekend, the clubs below the top ninety-two will get their annual opportunity to spend some time in the spotlight themselves. It should be an entertaining weekend and, in the first of a short series of articles about the state of the non-league game in 2015 and its history, here’s a brief explanation as to why you should be getting behind it as well.
It has become something of a truth universally acknowledged that there are problems with English football at the moment. At it’s top end, it’s unaffordable for a very large number of people, not only to attend the matches but even to watch it legally on the television, these days. Elsewhere, regardless of the discrepancies that early league tables tend to throw up, the Premier League has largely become an entirely stratified universe, one in which a maximum of four clubs have a realistic chance of winning the title and barely two or three more have so much of an opportunity to even finish in its top four. If you’re at a match, you won’t be entrusted to drink alcohol within sight of the pitch, the stewarding can be a little on the over-enthusiastic side at times, and you’ll probably have to sit down, even if you want to stand up. Even kick-off times are punted around the weekend like an errant ball during a warm-up, usually at the behest of broadcasters. It’s a combination of factors that could well induce an existential crisis in the average match-going supporter – for whose benefit, exactly, is this all taking place?
None of the above should be taken to imply that non-league football is some sort of utopia, of course. Human nature is human nature, and there are money-obsessed players and venal chairmen the length and breadth of the English league system. At its top end, particularly in the National League – the sparkly new name for what was previously known as the Football Conference – admission fees still have the capability of causing a sharp intake of breath, whilst television deals do cause inconvenient kick-off times and clubs that have had their chances enhanced by the use of financial steroids occasionally tear through divisions, usually leaving a degree of ill-will in their wakes. It’s not all a bed of roses – nothing in life ever is – but still the non-league game holds a charm about it that may well appeal to those amongst us that have grown disillusioned with the voracious nature of modern professional football.
There was a time when supporting a non-league team, especially from a distance, could be an arduous task. The national press only ever seemed to afford it any serious attention on the day of the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, and even this attention more often than not bordered on the condescending, as hacks with little knowledge of the non-league game (and, it frequently felt, still less interest in it) pitch up in search of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers in order to spin out a convenient cliché or two. These days, however, it’s all different. Social media will usually supply live score updates (or at least final scores,) while local news coverage is more exhaustive than ever and many clubs even now have their own YouTube channels, with match highlights and/or post-match interviews with the manager. The Non League Paper provides weekly updates for those prepared to trek to a newsagents on a Sunday morning, so there isn’t even any need to squint at a column at the foot of the nationals’ results page in order to establish what might have been going on elsewhere, and a number of well written independent websites offer independent and frequently entertaining opinion.
While an increase in the coverage of non-league football due to an ever-expanding diversity of media sources is most welcome for those who want to – or have to – keep tabs on their teams from a distance, the vast majority of it all stays resolutely below the radar, and this isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. While saturation media coverage means that it is almost impossible for anybody to avoid The Football whether they want to or not, turning the volume down on the non-league game is somewhat easier, and this tends to lead to a slower pace of support. It seldom feels as if there is any pressure to keep paying attention to one’s club at all hours of the day or night and this allows the non-league football watcher a slower, less frenetic pace of consuming the game. You can obsess over it should you wish, but there’s absolutely no obligation on your part to do so.
Matches themselves are seldom all-ticket, meaning that the decision to take in a game doesn’t have to be planned with military precision in a process that involves the frequently infuriating pas de deux of negotiating club ticketing websites, with their often appalling user interfaces and bewilderingly varied array of pricing options. You can pitch up at a ground at a quarter to three, give some money to a mildly flustered turnstile operator, and for this they let you in to watch a football match. And sure, the players aren’t as technically gifted as those that you see on the television, but it should go without saying that, just as all the great players in the world are no cast iron guarantee of an entertaining football match, so it is that twenty-two people you’ve never even heard of are plenty capable of throwing up seven goals including a last minute winner, an outstanding save or two and perhaps a red card.
That Non-League Day should be falling on this particular weekend offers one further small temptation for those looking to sample a small taste of the breadth of the English football experience. Not only are the clubs of the top two divisions not playing this weekend, but this weekend also sees this season’s FA Cup reach its Third Qualifying Round. This is the last round of the competition before the clubs of the National League get involved and the last but one before those of Leagues One and Two join the competition. Shit is about to get real for many non-league clubs in this year’s FA Cup, and a detailed knowledge of the current Southern League Premier Division table is not even required to understand the significance of the result of the match that your team is playing in.
The FA Cup may well be routinely derided by the supporters of big clubs, some whom seem to take pleasure in the ultimate point of their club to be finishing somewhere above eighteenth place in the Premier League each season, but, although modest in the overall scheme of things, prize money and the possibility of moving on to bigger and better things means that the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Cup means considerably more to those clubs taking part in it than the Third Round Proper does to many who enter at that stage of the competition. If you’re at an FA Cup match this weekend, you can rest heartily assured that this match means something to everybody taking part.
Ultimately, of course, it all comes down to money. There doesn’t seem to be a single sphere of human existence that doesn’t, these days. The exposure that Non-League Day offers eventually comes to rest upon one fundamental truth, that football clubs near the bottom of the game’s food chain live a hand to mouth financial existence, and that they need your support. With no lucrative television contracts and sponsorship deals that frequently vary between threadbare and derisory, match day incomes are critically important to their ongoing viability, and relatively small amounts of money – at least in terms of the dizzying sums thrown around in the Premier League these days – have the potential to offer a much-needed financial resources to clubs who desperately need them. And all of this brings us back to somewhere near where we began. One of the greatest things that English football possesses is its diversity and depth, but in a commercialised world that needs to be paid for by somebody. You can support your local non-league football club, and even for one Saturday only over the entire course of the season is better than not at all.
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