Non-League ground-grading is about as mysterious as the world of pensions. Nobody knows how the suits reach their verdict, and they don’t consider the condition of the facilities, but if you don’t serve the right sandwiches in the boardroom, you are likely to fail your grading.
That might be a bit of an over statement, but there’s something very masonic about the non-league world, with little thiefdoms protecting their own interest. Why else would a league consist of teams travelling hundreds of miles to play a game watched by 200 people that barely register on the national psyche? It is time to adopt some of the common sense prevalent in other European countries and have the leagues run by the Football Association and drawn up on strict regional boundaries.
A lot of clubs have spent considerable amounts of money refurbishing their grounds or indeed, building a completely new ground. There are some fine new stadia around – St.Neots Town, AFC Totton and Rugby Town are just a few, and then there are smaller, more functional but nevertheless decent grounds such as Arlesey Town and Biggleswade Town. But when you hear that some of these grounds have had problems gaining the required grade because of a shortage of seats, a detached boardroom, a yard of pitch, a concrete walkway or two or perhaps a turnstile, it makes you reach for the smelling salts.
These grounds are being graded on the basis that they will be filled on a regular basis. A capacity of, say, 4,000 people, represents 10 or 20 times the average crowd at this level. Apply the same logic to the top league and it would mean Manchester United would need a stadium that holds 670,000 or Chelsea a ground for 400,000. The only time a Ryman League Premier side is likely to need a ground that holds 4,000 would be for the visit of Manchester United, and then the police may not even let it happen!
There’s so much envy in non-league football it is embarrassing. Clubs who climb the pyramid and build a new ground are sniped at and it would seem, given a hard time, with petty rules and requirements enforced upon them to “get in line”.
Take the case of match postponements during the recent bad weather. Part-time clubs, with limited ability to get a game on when their pitch is covered with snow, were not allowed to call their games off until the very day of the game. Everyone knew the games had next to zero chance of taking place, but no, “rules is rules” and clubs had to keep the public, their transport providers, their fans and players waiting.
And talking of pitches, they seem to play no part in ground-grading. The FA sets only recommended standards for a pitch. This seems absolutely ridiculous – after all, without a decent pitch, you cannot play football. And it is the football that is the saleable product, so if it’s rubbish, people will not come to watch it. This should be one of the pre-requisites for any ground grading – the playing surface.
It’s strange, nay baffling, that these issues never come to the fore in the non-league media. There’s almost a reluctance to “rock the boat” and the picture that’s painted is of a sport that is self-congratulatory and full of bonhomie. The fact is, it is the baby brother of the Premier and Football League. Say no more….