As we see another season of blood, sweat and tears (literally) at the non-league level pass by; nothing seems out of the ordinary in English football. Most fans are unaware that the leagues below step 4 in the football pyramid are closing up for the season, focusing almost exclusively on the Premier League and the success of Leicester City. This is clear across all forms of media, in fact you can hardly go five minutes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram without seeing someone talk about the BPL in one capacity or another. While there isn’t anything wrong with this (BPL bosses would encourage it for the commercial benefits) I passionately feel that the non-league level of the game is often totally unappreciated by multi-media corporations and fans alike. This ignorance of a class of the sport often passed off as ‘amateur’, ‘second-rate’ or ‘low on quality’ is a real shame for the game, and one I believe needs to be fixed. But where is non-league football going wrong in terms of its promotion, branding and set-up? What needs to be done to draw fans back to their local clubs, untouched by professionalism?
To understand the problem, we need to look back through history. Well, it’s important to understand that all clubs were non-league when they started. Newton Heath, Woolwich Arsenal, St Marks (Manchester City) and Liverpool FC all started off as local sides, reflecting the landscape of the industrial revolution at the time through their players, who were builders, railway employees, iron workers and steel workers for example. Just look at the nicknames of football league clubs across the country, many represent the professions of the players back in the 1880’s and 90’s, notably Yeovil (the Glovers), Northampton (the Cobblers) and Luton (the Hatters). Well, this was the same across England. If all clubs have all at some point in their histories experienced the same level of football, surely their fans can all respect each club, from inner-city to quaint village, equally and view them all from the same point of view, no matter the wealth or success of some. Professional leagues in England only came into being 1888, with one league of 12 teams called the Football League, even before the times of penalty kicks and goal nets. So-called ‘semi-professional’ leagues were only respected as so by the Football League around 1905, when the Northern League and Southern League (originally the top leagues in the country before professionalism) were practically discarded in place of the ever-expanding Football League, and the Isthmian League was founded.
Considering this, surely fans of the top sides in the country should not be looking down their noses at non-league sides (I know they do), as they are clearly disrespecting their own club’s history, as well as the beauty of non-league. If they can’t understand the appeal of supporting your very own local team, the one you grew up living so close to, I think it shows that they aren’t true football fans. If you have never stood out on the terraces in all weathers, no matter how your team is playing, with only a thin metal barrier barring you from the players, you haven’t lived. To be there for your side through thick and thin, not tempted by the draw of ‘better’ football (whatever that means) at your closest city, and still be proud of what your village or town has achieved, I think it is one of the most special experiences in not only football, but life as a whole. My footballing journey effectively started on a hot summers day at the Caburn Ground, Ringmer back in 2011, when I was 9 years old (late age to be introduced, I know) as Ringmer FC faced up against St Francis Rangers FC in the last game of the 2010/11 Sussex County Football League Division One season. I have clear and truly fond memories of that day, as in the baking heat of late April Ringmer absolutely tonked Rangers 5-2, with a hat-trick from a certain striker named Darren Lok, who was my idol after the match and for the rest of the summer that year. I couldn’t wait to watch more of it. That just goes to show that you don’t need to see the highest level of football or the most expensive players on the planet to get hooked on the pleasures of football, or to have the most enjoyment on your Saturday afternoons. All you need are two teams of eleven, two goals, a ball, a FA-compliant pitch, a referee and two linesmen to have an official game. Whether that is at Old Trafford or at the Caburn Ground doesn’t matter, it’s the memories that count.
One argument I can never understand from the doubters of non-league football is that it doesn’t justify the entry price. If you want value at a game of football, why would you then spend your money at a match in the Football League, where an adult ticket can set you back around £40, with a beer, a pie and a programme probably costing another £10 or so? Surely you’d be better served spending, for example, at Lewes FC with £11 for entry, £2 for a programme and around £5 for a beer (which you can actually drink in the stands) and pie. You could even get all this at Lewes FC knowing that as an owner, the profits will all be going back into the running of the club rather than filtered out by an overseas investor who is rarely seen at matches. Surely this is a better option?
Non-league is where the spirit of the game still runs strong. It doesn’t charge you thousands of pounds a year just to support your team like at Arsenal, it doesn’t serve as a cash cow for all these transnational corporations and it doesn’t pay players stratospheric and totally out of touch with reality wages. Most importantly, though, it doesn’t exclude its fans. For my so-far exactly five years (total coincidence for this week) of watching football directly from the stands, I have seen a lot of different things, but one thing I have never seen or experienced is a team being out of touch with their fans. This is mostly because the fans are usually so close that they could tell their board members what they thought could be improved over a pint while watching the game, which is vitally important at any level. Without talking to the fans, these ‘big’ clubs are running as dictatorships, in which they are completely ignoring the wishes of the people who in the end are the only ones that matter to a club’s survival; the fans.
So, after all I’ve said, why aren’t fans across the country flocking to non-league teams? One big reason is certainly the lack of branding that the lower leagues have, as they are so often compared to Sunday League when they really aren’t of that level. These players, from the National League to the County Divisions are actually paid, believe it or not, and have to turn up for training otherwise they will be kicked out. It’s called ‘semi-professional’ for a reason, so why do people keep acting as if it is amateur? There is definitely an attempt to change this, starting with last summer’s renaming of the Vanarama Conference to the Vanarama National, which has certainly improved the opportunities for the league in terms of possible future sponsorship as companies would be attracted to the proud, nationwide impression given off from the name. But this is nowhere near enough, as it clearly hasn’t garnered extra focus on the league this season. Besides Cheltenham going up as champions and Forest Green Rovers (who I have a certain affinity for after my Football Manager 2012 career with them, taking them to the Premier League) about to finish as runners-up, I honestly couldn’t tell you about the Vanarama National League this season. I seriously doubt many others could either. This is definitely an issue for the league as it struggles for relevance amongst BT Sport’s packed schedule and any mainstream media.
But the beauty of non-league football has never laid in its availability for purchase by corporations like BT Sport; it has always been in the ‘you had to be there’ moments, the memories that can never be shown on an action replay, the ones that you simply have to cherish. The problem for non-league football is how to blend the two sides of this, how to garner the income and draw in the fans while not appearing to sell out by its present fans. The solution that Lewes FC has had to this is to promote itself, not relying on its league to do the work and therefore cutting out the middle man in promoting itself to potential new customers. If all clubs had the blue sky thinking attitude of the match-day poster-famous, marketing expert, footballing hipsters at Lewes, there would a whole ground full worth of new fans waiting for them each season, not to mention the thousands of pounds and cult status that comes with it. Even in the face of relegation from the Ryman (Isthmian) Premier Division (level 7 of the football pyramid), Lewes have enjoyed the fifth highest average attendances in the league (which is not w**k Harry, yes I am talking to you). The point is that if clubs take responsibility for their own success, they will reap the rewards. Like a wise man once said, you are the master of your fate. Clubs have the choice of adapting and thriving, or doing nothing and being left behind.
No matter which methods they take in doing it, non-league clubs have to keep up with the times and advertise as much as possible, otherwise they will be left with only the bare bones of support left, not generating enough income to keep the club going. This has been clear in so many cases over the past few years, with more well-known examples including Darlington, Chester City and Kettering Town going through administration over the past decade, although all reformed as new clubs due to the strength of their fan base. More personal experiences to me include East Sussex sides Rye United and Sidley United, both of whom had to pull out of the Sussex County Divisions in 2014 and 2013 respectively, both citing financial collapse as the reasons behind their downfalls. While Sidley have recovered and now stand 1st in the East Sussex Football League Division One (the 13th tier of English football), Rye haven’t yet recovered as a club, despite having a population of almost 10,000 as a town. This just goes to show that clubs at the lower levels of English football don’t have the expertise to encourage more of the local population to come down and support their club, as even 500 fans is a good turnout for these sides, when their aims really should be higher.
People fifty years ago flocked to their local grounds en masse wherever in the country they were, irregardless of whether they were there for the football or just to meet up with friends. Football was as much a social and hearty thing back then, whereas now we are obsessed with the top names, the most expensive players and the glamour of shiny new grounds in the BPL. There is so much commercialism in the game today that it has absolutely lost its heart at the top level, forgetting the reason that we all come back season after season; it’s the heart, not the show. If anything, the BPL is Americanising itself, turning itself into a brand comparable with that of the NFL, NBA or WWE (I see you Joe), so it can appeal to foreign investors and television companies. For them, it’s more about the paint on the walls rather than the bricks and mortar, the brand name on the packet over the product, the topping on the cake rather than the sponge. And who prefers the topping to the sponge? Greedy people, that’s who.
A certain aspect of the reasoning for the total dominance of the BPL and Football League over non-league football is the lack of hometown pride that we have been manipulated to show these days by the media, both social and mainstream. There is a sort of social expectation, a peer pressure almost, into supporting a Premier League team, however tenuous the link between you and it today. There is no doubt that in any first meeting between two football fans there will be the question ‘who do you support?’ and either will be pressured into stating a well-known team. One thing I can’t stand is people who say their ‘English team is x, their Spanish team is y and their German team is z’ or so on, which completely ignores the whole concept of ‘diehard’ support. To name your local team as your favourite team these days is most commonly greeted with surprise, which just exemplifies the major shift in beliefs over the past half century. If you aren’t expected to support your local team, you never will, and no progress will ever be made. Unless the attitudes of the media can ever be made to change, we can never help non-league football become better, so we as fans have to take a stand and bring attention to any English football below level 4 of the pyramid. We have to be proud to follow our local teams.
The positive news for the future of non-league football is that there are a number of fightbacks against the status quo happening here and now. There are a number of organisations such as Non League Daily, Fans Focus and the Non-League Paper who stand up for the football of the working man (and woman) by spreading the word of the advantages of non-league. The thrills, the spills, the shocks and the downright ridiculous stories are all covered by these sites, proving invaluable to the growth of the game. Other initiatives such as Non-League Day every year during the September International break are totally game-changing as they actively expose all the advantages and joys of non-league football to normally BPL-focused fans, bringing in vital income for clubs. The success of the campaign in bringing more attention to smaller clubs in just the six years of its existence has been astounding, and amazing for bridging the gap between the tens of thousands of fans at BPL matches to the 100 or so at County level. All of this is good news for the game, but we need to keep up the pressure on people at the top, the FA and others, to expand the opportunities for non-league sides across the country. We don’t want to be moulded by them into a filtered down version of the BPL, we don’t want higher wages, we don’t want sponsorship around every single corner and we definitely don’t want people who will attempt to break apart our bond. That bond that all non-league fans, players and bosses share is a love of the game no matter how unglamorous or unlikely the situation is. What we want is the continuation of football clubs for all areas of the nation, and equal opportunities for each to succeed.
In the end, I can only go on making the case for so long. I hope that all of you reading this can truly appreciate the benefits and glory of non-league football in the same way that so many across the country do, and that you will feel empowered to make more significant moves to help the cause of these leagues. What is needed to help clubs survive and thrive in these conditions is more attention (like the articles about Horsham striker Terry Dodd last week, who I have to say was rubbish during his time at Lewes), more engagement and basically more fans. With fans comes income, opportunity and togetherness, a real connection for a club with its community. To get to the heart of these leagues, you only have to look at the faces of the fans on the terraces, no matter whether they have been there for five years or fifty years, to see how much it matters to us. I am a true believer that non-league football will always be superior to the BPL, the Champions League or the World Cup, as it is simply a believable and honest representation of the spirit of the game.
There is nothing to hide in non-league football, unless you are the owner of Eastleigh, Whitehawk or Farnborough (a few blotches on the map), and that is what makes it so relatable and close. From now on, the mission needs to be to make the term non-league synonymous with heart, value for money, entertainment and unpredictability, not being amateur, low on quality, sloppy or short on stars, as from my experience it has certainly not matched any of those descriptions. From Darren Lok to Marc Whiteman, Christian Nanetti, Steve Robinson, Nathan Crabb and now Alex Laing and Jonté Smith for me, non-league football creates as many heroes as the professional game. Non-league football for me has been absolutely life-changing, as I’m sure it has been for so many others, and the one thing I really want from it is to offer so many more people the same thing, something that can change their perception and love of football forever. So one thing I would like to say to all people out there who are considering entering the non-league scene is go ahead, take a chance on your local club and you will be glad you did so.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!