Many of the idiosyncracies of non-league football remain a mystery to those that don’t watch it very often. To the average viewer of Premier League football, the nature of the non-league game often seems as baffling as it would do if they turned up and the referee was nude. Right from before the kick-off, the conventions are different. Buying tickets in advance is not usually remotely necessary and tickets can be bought on the turnstiles, usually from a grumpy, middle-aged man who, quite conspicuously, doesn’t click a ticker or make any other token gesture towards knowing how many people there are in the ground in the first place. If the ground holds 6,000 people and there are only going to be 400 people turning up at most, it doesn’t really matter. All-ticket matches are almost unheard of and, indeed, if you turn up with fifteen minutes before kick off, you’ll have time to wolf a pint down and still get inside for kick-off.
Once, through the gates, the array of other entertainment harks back to a simpler age. Small clubs, strapped for cash and needing to make the most of anybody that enters into the ground will be offered programmes and raffle tickets. Non-league programmes have improved vastly over the last twenty years or so, but a new host of problems have given editors a headache. With more and more players on loan or signed on temporary contracts, the team lists will usually be little more than guesswork, and many clubs now put the actual teams up on a whiteboard near the turnstiles. Raffle ticket prizes, we’ll come back to later. The food on sale will be of a quality that could be best described as “variable”, which is an improvement on many bigger grounds, where the quality could be described as “almost uniformly shit”. While some non-league clubs will try and push out fried hooves and lumps of cartilage in a bun, others take an almost reckless pride in producing good food.
The match experience couldn’t be much more different. Many non-league grounds were built when crowds, in spite of a recent increase, were much higher than they are. Rather than being shepherded into a seat, you will find vast acres of terraces to choose a vantage point from. In the recent debate about safe standing, much was made about what was lost when the vast, heaving masses of the colossal terraces like the Kop at Anfield or the North Bank at Highbury. When there are no heaving masses, the nature of the terrace changes. It becomes a social circle. It’s easy to spend a full ninety minutes resting on a crush barrier with your back to the pitch, chatting to your mates and making up for lost time with old acquaintances. In the background, meanwhile, there is a match going. Normally, every shout of the players and the referees can be heard, revealing that the players are even less sophisticated than you might imagine, and that the referees, on the whole, have the patience of saints.
Half-time comes with the probability of nothing of significance having occurred on the pitch. At half-time comes one of, to Premier League eyes, the more perplexing conventions of the non-league game. It’s the routine of the changing of ends at half-time. There is a tendency amongst non-league supporters, unworried on the whole by such issues as crowd segregation, to stand behind the goal of the which team that they are supporting is attacking, and then changing ends at half-time, when the players change ends after the break. There is a tendency, during the second half, for interest levels in the crowd to rise. The nature of the non-league crowd becomes more evident. What is noticeable is that there is more humour, and usually less malice. Mistakes by players – more expected, as they are – are more likely to be treated with resigned shakes of the head or (on occasion) gales of laughter, and the social club atmosphere becomes more evident, with moments of genuine skill, which are occasional but do happen, are met with genuine warmth and appreciation.
At full-time, the bar fills again, and it is here that part of the problem for non-league football starts to become apparent. Crowds surround the television sets, watching the results come in from elsewhere, and many of the people watching care more about what’s coming through the cathode ray tube about what they have just watched. The Premier League has a stranglehold, having often managed to persuade people that genuinely care about the game to identify more with them than they ever will with their local club. Slowly, the crowd in the bar will disperse and drift home to spend quality time with their families and watch “Match Of The Day”. The question arises of how non-league clubs maintain this state of affairs in the face of such overwhelming subliminal pressure from all sides to watch something BIGGER and BETTER.
Well, to an extent, Premier League clubs do their work for them. They all offer reduced prices for children but, at the age of eighteen, those offers usually stop. Eighteen to thirty year olds have long since been priced out of the Premier League. Some non-league clubs (and they are usually the ones at which one sees the most young faces) engage with their communities and run youth programmes that implant the club into the minds of young people that could be seduced by the Premier League but are priced out of its market in favour of middle-aged men with fat wallets. For all of the many crises in the non-league game that you read about today, a lot of repair work can be carried out if small clubs reach out into their communities. The evidence is there for them to examine – whether they choose to take any notice of it, however, is a quite different question.