Money Can’t Buy You Love: The National League Play-off Final

The National League play-off final has in recent years come to be the highest profile non-league match of the season, its attendance figures and coverage eclipsing the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals to such an extent that the Football Association eventually merged those two matches into a one day event. This year, however, it’s almost certain that “Non-League Finals Day”, which is held next weekend, will eclipse this match. Indeed, yesterday afternoon one could even have been forgiven for wondering whether this match really was that important, after all. The attendance for yesterday’s match was just 8,049, a record low since the introduction of these playoffs in 2003, a period which includes the years during which the final was held at The Britannia Stadium in Stoke-on-Trent and the 2011 final between Luton Town and AFC Wimbledon, which was held at The Etihad Stadium in Manchester.

It’s probably fair to say that yesterday’s match didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination. Even the reported attendance figure was described by some as “generous.” It was reported that Salford had sold 3,000 tickets and Fylde just a few hundred, with the remainder of the crowd being made up of complimentary tickets and those who just fancied an afternoon out at Wembley. People who hold complimentary tickets, of course, are far from guaranteed to actually turn up for a match – especially if they’re not supporters of the clubs involved – so the number of people who actually turned up to watch the match yesterday afternoon may well have been even lower than the reported attendance. It is, in all honesty, a bit of an embarrassment for the National League.

The travelling required to get to London from the north-west of England might be cited as a partial explanation for this low attendance, but this doesn’t tell the full story since previous finals held there featuring two clubs playing a long way from home have been played in front of considerably bigger crowds. More than 16,000 people, for example, saw Newport County play Wrexham in 2013, whilst more than 47,000 turned out there two years later to see Bristol Rovers beat Grimsby Town on penalty kicks. In the opposition direction, meanwhile, more than 18,000 made the trip north for the 2011 final between Luton Town and AFC Wimbledon.

It is tempting to think that these matches should be moved to smaller stadia which are closer to the locations of those playing in them but, no matter how desirable this might be, it seems unlikely that it will happen at any point in the foreseeable future. If Wembley is to be used as a venue, it obviously has to be booked quite a long way in advance, and the same goes for any other stadium in the country. Because the identity of the finalists will not be known until just a few days before the final, moving it at very notice to somewhere more appopriate or more local is an unworkable pipe dream.

When the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals were played elsewhere (while Wembley was being rebuilt), attendances suffered. Attendances for National League play-off finals played at Stoke were, on the whole, substantially lower than they have been at Wembley as well. Organisers will also be aware of the fact that Wembley, despite its overuse in recent years, does continue to have a pull for the supporters of clubs who don’t get to play there very often. Frequent visits can happen, though, even in the non-league game. AFC Fylde, losers by a comfortable margin yesterday afternoon, have a return trip to Wembley next Sunday for an FA Trophy Final against Leyton Orient.

It seems unlikely that there is a large travelling support that decided to put off travelling to London for this weekend’s match in favour of an FA Trophy final, but Leyton Orient’s recent National League title and relatively close proximity to Wembley coupled with the fact that the FA Vase final will be played between Chertsey Town and Cray Valley Paper Mills, two other clubs from the south-east of England, means that it is expected that the attendance for next weekend’s “finals day” will be considerably higher than yesterday’s attendance at Wembley regardless.

Neither Salford City or AFC Fylde have been terribly popular amongst the supporters of other non-league clubs since money started being pumped into them a couple of years ago. Is it just jealousy? Well, that depends on one’s opinion on fnancial doping before these two particular clubs came along. If a critic of Salford City or AFC Fylde would happily accept the sort of money that has been poured into these two clubs into their club without asking any questions whilst being critical of these two clubs (or others such as, for example, Billericay Town) then yes, that would be hypocritical.

There are, however, plenty of people – likely a majority – for whom criticism of financially doped clubs is informed by ethics. A substantial number of us want our sporting competitions to be competitive and consider the integrity of league seasons to be fundamentally torpedoed by one or two clubs having a cheat code which allows them to adjust the settings for the season to the lowest level. Football supporters have been tolerant of financial inequality to the point of being supine about it for years, but it’s worth bearing in mind that some – arguably many – people watch non-league football precisely because it is football that they feel should be less tainted by the distorting effects of financial inequality.

In the case of Salford City, of course, the make-up of the club’s ownership also gives rise to criticism. It’s almost impossible to read anything about them without seeing reference to Manchester United’s “Class of 92”, and yes, it’s likely that some of the antipathy towards this club is a result of antipathy towards Manchester United. Just as with that “jealousy” thing, though, to read it solely within these terms is an over-simplification. The coinciding of Salford’s ascent with the BBC’s move to Salford has seen the corporation give the distinct impression of fawning over its new local football club, which would get the backs of the supporters of other clubs up even if Salford weren’t already, at least in relation to the clubs that they’re supposed to be “competing” against, richer than Croesus.

This is seen at its clearest when progress through the FA Cup – the prize and television money from which can provide a huge boost to the fortunes of a non-league club – is accompanied uncritical coverage, as though these stories are “fairytales”, just as they would be at any other non-league club shooting up through the divisions and biffing Football League clubs in the FA Cup. This presentation isn’t only fundamentally dishonest – Salford City, for example, have been paying Adam Rooney ¬£4,000 a week this season, a League One wage in the National League – but also lazy. It reeks of picking up a tired non-league clich√© and slinging it around without having given any attention to the realities of what has been happening at these clubs or, both worse and more likely, being aware of these matters but choosing to ignore them instead.

The Class of 92 came into Salford City in the summer of 2014. In January 2015, they poached the management team and a number of players from Ramsbottom United, a club which had won promotion into the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League at the end of the previous season. Ramsbottom were relegated back at the end of the 2015/16 season. When Class of 92: Out of Their League, the hagiographic “documentary” series about the club (well, its celebrity owners), was broadcast in two series, shown in October 2015 and August 2016, this filleting of another non-league club for their own advancement was somewhat overlooked.

Small wonder, then, that a sizeable proportion of the non-league football community should have found a degree of humour in yesterday’s pitifully small attendance at Wembley. Yet the BBC persists with trying to create a narrative that almost no-one else is buying. There will be some who argue that the success of Salford City has been good for Manchester United supporters looking for an alternative to their team’s recent fall from grace. Presumably disaffection with the state of top flight football being ameliorated by applying the same rules of financial inequality further down the ladder isn’t something that causes them any amount of cognitive dissonance.

Other National League clubs – most of whom are already living a hand-to-mouth existence, financially speaking – are only likely to feel as though they have to increase their wage budgets in order to compete as a result of the presence of clubs like this, especially with there only being two promotion places from this twenty-four team division. It’s probably a coincidence that two National League clubs – Gateshead and Ebbsfleet United – are in deep trouble while financial dopers made up two of the division’s top four places, but the whys and wherefores of these two particular clubs don’t alter the fact that these pressures are felt across all clubs. The very presence of the financial model which led to Salford City and AFC Fylde being at Wembley yesterday is toxic. Small wonder, then, that so few people could make a gap for their meeting yesterday afternoon.