The Non-League Day initiative has been a resounding success and in some cases, there has been good support from clubs further up the food chain. But in truth, the senior element of the professional game should be doing more to nurture football at grass-roots level. Why? Because if English football is ever going to rise from the depths that it is about to plunge – and too many people are not truly taking on board that we are about to see a huge decline in the status of the England football team – the state of the game needs to be healthy from the very bottom upwards.
Nowhere in Europe does football at non-league level attract the sort of devotion it does in England. In most countries it is a function, not an emotion, played in front of next to no fans in grounds that doesn’t really cater for spectators. But in the UK, the performance of a non-league fan’s club is every bit as important as it is for fans of Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea. They fret just as much, wring their hands even more and gaze sorrowfully into the distance after a defeat.
Supporters from abroad recognize this unique element of the English game, and that’s why you get groups of slightly bonkers German or Dutch supporters coming over to England to watch Ham and Egg Sandwich Albion play Stilton Athletic. They like the “subbuteo effect” that non-league football provides – small town football grounds with a stand, a fence, a tea hut, some street-lamp floodlights and cups of steaming Bovril. It’s about as English as brass bands, Cornish pasties and warm beer – and our friends from afar love it.
For some people, discovering your local non-league football club is like coming across an old second-hand bookshop in some alleyway of the main drag. In Hitchin, for example, that brilliant bookshop, Eric Moore’s, calls itself “Hitchin’s Best Kept Secret”. I would argue that the second best kept secret in Hitchin is the football club. Because it is a time warp, painted corporation green with creaky wooden terracing, the traditional non-league fan loves it. How many people have lavished praise upon Top Field because of its “charm” and “character”? Those that know are aware that both descriptors can be interpreted as “in need of repair”. But a lot of non-league followers don’t seem to care. Why, for example, do so many people still stroll along to clapped-out Clapton in hope of capturing the aroma of a bygone era?
But that’s where old money and new money go along divergent paths. The “subbuteo effect” is interpreted by the new order as downright shabby, the olde-worlde charm is marked down as “out of touch” and “atmospheric” is replaced with “in need of demolition”. Most of the grounds from Hitchin’s heyday have gone – such as Enfield, Hendon, Dulwich and Tooting, to name but a few. In the place of such grounds have come stadiums that are indeed functional, more maintenance friendly and certainly tidier. Although they look a little like refugees from a business or retail park, there is certainly room for old and new. The future is corrugated steel and breeze block. It can seem soulless at times, but not when the ground is packed!
But that’s where those fans come into it again. All empty stadiums lack a bit of soul, so it’s important that at Steps 3,4,5 and below, football continues to thrive and act as a stepping stone for young players to move up the ladder. That way, the fans will continue to support it and make it all worthwhile. Around 40 Hitchin fans go everywhere in support of their club – I counted that same number when Burnley recently played at Brighton. I think that’s what makes non-league football a bit special in this country.