A game between two step five teams. The crowd, sub-60, is largely disinterested, the two teams ill-disciplined and the standard of football honest but limited. The “caterer” is equally ambivalent, balancing an iPhone on her shoulder as she turns over some bacon in a tea bar with questionable hygiene standards. A man in an anorak, fidgets and continues his circumnavigation of the ground in desperate search of a “teamsheet”, despite the line-ups being chalked on a blackboard by the entrance. He congratulates the home club’s secretary for a “fantastic 64-page programme” but anxiously asks for that much-coveted teamsheet. This is the world of the obsessive and all these things matter….but only to a handful of people.
Saturday afternoon park football in all but name, but with the trimmings of a much bigger stage: a bloated 64-page programme (for who’s benefit?..and who needs the league tables of every league at Step 5?), £6 to get in, players getting paid. This is the fantasy world of non-league football.
I would add that this game was a FA Vase tie in deepest East Anglia. But scarcely anyone in the home team’s town, population 10,000 and a bit, noticed. Indeed, four people I asked on route to the ground had no idea where the game was taking place. There were no fixture posters in the two pubs I visited, close to the ground, and there wasn’t even a [working] tannoy at the game to tell people what was going on.
It’s when you experience a game like this that you wonder “what’s the point?”….”who really cares if this football match takes place?”. The 64-page programme editor (who really must get out more) pointed out that the Vase tie was “one of the exciting games of the season” and that “we are sure to be in for an exciting, full-blooded tie”. Who was he kidding?
To the players, “salt of the earth” officials and parents of the players, it matters. But to anyone else, other than people who want to tick a box to indicate they’ve been to the ground, it really doesn’t register.
And that would be all very well if the game at this level satisfied itself in this way, but it doesn’t, because everyone wants to pretend they are rubbing shoulders with the big boys. I’ve seen non-league players who turn out in front of 150 people a week tell people – because they get paid – “I’m a professional footballer”. It’s a deluded sentiment that pervades many segments of the non-league game.
It is surely time for non-league football to look itself in the eye and come to terms with its real identity. It’s not easy to do this because everyone wants to be “ambitious” and give the impression they are aiming for better things. This invariably means, “we are spending more money than we generate”.
If we are truly honest, any game being watched by less than 500 people is not really relevant to the broader community, but that would wipe out 75% of the non-league game. So let’s be generous and say that any game with a crowd below 250 doesn’t really count. Harsh, you might say, but when we say it doesn’t matter, we are really saying that players should not get paid, admission prices should be tempered and the game should adjust itself to a more humble level.
Beyond step three is where it all starts to get silly. Take the Southern League Central and South/West. Only four of the 48 clubs attracts a gate of 250-plus. And in the Ryman, only five of 48 at step four manage to reach the 250 level with their average attendance. The Premier Divisions of the Ryman, Southern League and Northern Premier are just about relevant when it comes to public awareness. But take a closer look this season and you’ll see that gates are down in about half of the clubs playing at this level. The complaint among many clubs is that midweek TV coverage is severely impacting attendances, but much of it is down to inflated admission prices and too many games, which a lot of clubs, and associations, refuse to acknowledge.
Reducing admission prices is a logical and easily-achieved step to take to improve attendances. You can pay £10 at step three and only marginally less at step four. Crazy. It seems that the strategy around pricing models has always been, “we need more money, so we will just ask those that are willing to come to games to pay more”. It totally flies in the face of the old “supply and demand” argument. I don’t see any queues building up outside non-league games, unless it is three minutes to three and the social club is emptying before kick-off. Some myopic football officials point to the Premier League and argue that prices there are going up all the time. The big difference at most clubs is that the demand often outstrips supply, so those clubs can effectively charge what they like. It’s not right, but that’s capitalism. Non-league football cannot possibly compare itself to the behavior at that level of the game.
Too many games for a dedicated audience only puts more pressure on the loyal and does little to encourage new support. Non-league’s future depends on encouraging the next generation, which to be be fair, many clubs are trying to do. With the average age of a non-league crowd getting worryingly old, youngsters have to be nurtured to bring future supporters to the game. But the audience also has to be hungry, so why not make the leagues smaller, do away with some of the meaningless competitions and make non-league slimmer and more compact?
That consolidation – mergers of clubs, leagues and objectives – needs to be driven by the football authorities. For a start, clubs below step three need to revert to amateur status, accompanied by very strict financial compliance rules from on high. It means some disenfranchisement has to take place, which won’t be welcome, but it will go some way to preventing very small clubs trying to ape their betters. Most of these clubs are never going to attract a crowd to their home games, so why pretend?
What’s the answer? Firstly, the step three leagues should become four to achieve a better geographical spread – no team should travel 200 miles to play in front of 250 people. They should all become FA run leagues rather than independent bodies that currently look after their own interests. Senior status should be something that stops at step three and step four onwards – when you speak to anyone from European football, they cannot believe that players get paid to play in front of 100 people. The FA Amateur Cup should return, replacing the FA Vase. And Admission prices, right across the board, should be reviewed and, ultimately, lowered. And at step three upwards, a salary cap should be implemented.
Simple? Not at all. But something has to change to bring common sense back to a level of the game that while important and loved by many, has lost touch with reality. Importantly, it’s not too late to change…