Hot Take Sunday: There’s Something In The Air

by | Aug 1, 2021

It’s been a long time, and this time around it’s been considerably longer than usual. In these extraordinary times, the supporters of Premier League and EFL clubs have been impacted by the pandemic, of that there is no doubt. At least, though, their teams continued to play matches, even if they weren’t allowed to attend them, and these matches were available to view from home. This wasn’t a luxury allowed to clubs below the second tier of the non-league game. Leagues below the National League have been suspended since last winter. Clubs were effectively mothballed, and no-one really knew how many casualties there might be as a result of this inertia by the time we restarted.

Yesterday afternoon, though, signs of life. On the last day of July 2021, the non-league game returned at it fifth tier and below, and it felt like a cathartic moment for all concerned. In truth, there’s been something in the air for a few weeks, now. Pre-season friendlies have been salivated over in a manner never before seen. The hunger to return to the football, to get back into this pasrt of the rhythm of our ‘normal’ lives, has been palpable. And yesterday, competitive football in front of spectators did finally return.

The North West Counties League is in something of a peculiar position this season, with two new phoenix clubs having joined their ranks. In the Premier Division sit Macclesfield FC, the club formed as Macclesfield Town collapsed in a flurry of unpaid bills this time last year. Their home match against Burscough attracted a crowd of 2,018 people, an attendance 20 people higher than the average that they managed in their last season of EFL football. Supporters didn’t go ome disappointed, either. Macclesfield won by a goal to nil, the first step on what will be a long walk back to the top end of the non-league game and perhaps beyond.

A division below Macclesfield, Bury AFC kicked off their season with a trip to Ilkley Town. There remain deep splits in the Bury support following the club’s collapse in 2019, with various individuals still trying to keep the old club alive. You can gauge the success of this by the number of matches that Bury FC have played since the 27th August 2019 (it’s none, of course), but while Gigg Lane continues to sit and rot, the new club have just got on with the business of starting afresh. After a goalless first half at Ilkley, they were pegged back to 2-2 after have run up a two goal lead, but recovered to win the match 4-2. A crowd of 500 people turned out for that match.

At this level of the game, of course, Bury and Macclesfield are outliers, former EFL clubs with support bases that will likely distort the averages across the entire league this season. Their healthy attendances, however, point towards something quite interesting. Twenty-nine matches were played across the three divisions of the NWCL yesterday. Of these matches, only six attracted attendances of less than 100, with 287 people watching Prestwich Heys vs Northwich Victoria and 320 at the match between Maine Road and FC Isle of Man.

These numbers may sound low, but it’s worth remembering how far down the non-league pyramid we are, here. The fifth tier of the non-league game may not sound that far down, but the pyramid fans out as it goes down, sub-dividing by region. There is a combined total of 311 clubs above the NWCL, in the three divisions of the National League, the Southern League, the Isthmian League and the North-West Counties League combined. It remains as true as ever that one of the most remarkable things about football in England is its strength in depth and the interest that it attracts.

There are specific reasons why the NWCL attracted such strong crowds yesterday. The presence of clubs resurrected from the ashes of those who failed makes an obvious difference, and the decision to start the season a week earlier was likely a contributory factor as well. It feels, though, as if there’s something different going on here, too. The Project Big Picture and European Super League fiascos may already be in the process of being swept under the carpet by those who instigated them, but it’s doubtful that many fans will have forgotten. If trust in football does count for anything, there’s precious little for the biggest clubs, and even less than in previous years.

If the clamour for live football is high and trust in the biggest clubs is low – and all of this is before we even look at the continuing hoovering up of all the best players by a tiny number of Premier League clubs – then the conditions might even be right for a further renaissance for the non-league game. Sure enough, the last year and a half have been unbelievably tough for all clubs, but it’s entirely plausible that the reward for many smaller clubs for having got through everything that’s happened might be bigger crowds and more attention.

It would be naïve to assume that everything is back to normal. It remains likely that this season will be heavily disrupted by positive tests among players and staff, and no-one can say with absolute certainty that this season will be played out and completed in the way that we might normally expect. It’s almost certainly going to require further patience on the part of everybody to get through it, and to pretend otherwise would sit somewhere between disingenousness, but the green shoots of recovery are already starting to show. There has been precious little to cheer about for non-league fans for a very long time in this country. If the rolling start to this season comes about against the backdrop of a carnival atmosphere, that would be entirely understandable.