Who “gets” non-league apart from the die-hard fans?

P1080606IT IS hardly surprising that the national media, indeed the general public, doesn’t always understand non-league football. The FA Cup tie between Eastleigh and Bolton Wanderers highlighted that certain people within the industry still retain the patronising air of master and servant when it comes to a level of the game that is the heart and soul of football in Britain.

When you hear talk about “the amateurs” (and comments like that still prevail), they are coming from people who do not realise that “amateurism” died a death in the 1970s. Most people cannot possibly know this as non-league crowds are not large enough, and the national publicity still not broad enough, to presume that Joe Public knows about the workings of the sport. The assumption is that the amateur is alive and well and playing for a team called Corinthians or another club with a name handed down from Mount Olympus.

Most people outside the core audience do not realise that non-league players get paid, right down to a very low level. As an advocate of financial prudence when it comes to non-league – the maths just don’t add-up – I can understand the casual onlooker being somewhat mystified how a club that attracts 300 people can afford to actually pay players. Truth is, many struggle.

There’s non-league and there’s non-league

That’s why the FA Cup is so vital for these clubs. Whenever a non-league club embarks on a cup run and makes headlines, the press are obsessed with the “butcher, baker, candlestick maker” element of the team in question. I have witnessed this first-hand when I was involved with Hitchin Town. As the Canaries were recording their first ever giant-killing in the FA Cup, the hacks were only interested in how the goalscorer made a living. Hence, “the postmen, carpenters and tarmac layers of Hitchin” became the story, with the newspapers’ photographers all keen to get a shot of the tarmac lorry, all dripping black stuff after a day’s work on the M25, sitting in the club car park.

Obviously, the fact that the players are part-time adds a human interest element – the romance – to the story, but when it starts to overshadow the actual achievement, it does become patronising. Nevertheless, if there’s the remotest chance your non-league team could become Steeple Sinderby Wanderers (as per J.L. Carr’s novel), the media will be your best pals, but as soon as the run ends, “nobody loves you when you’re down and out”.

The media has not quite grasped that there is non-league and there is non-league. Some years ago, Enfield’s chairman, a year after the club came down from the Conference, told me that, “Conference is semi-pro, Isthmian is part-time”. At that moment, his words were a little arrogant and dismissive of any level below the Conference. A few years later, Enfield were in the mire and indeed grateful for that “part-time” football.

Since then, the gap between what was the Conference and Step 3 has become vast, making the words of the Enfield man almost prophetic. National League, as it is now known, has effectively become “League Three”. It’s therefore inappropriate to view a club like Eastleigh as a team of lads who are merely playing for the “love of the game”. The National League, rightly or wrongly, is almost 100% full-time. There’s real substance in the National League – just consider the post-match media activity that follows a National League game – microphones, notepads and cameras vying for attention. It’s also not that much of a shock when a team from Step 1 does beat a Football League club.

It might not be that much of an upset if a National League side beats a Championship side. Eastleigh’s FA Cup draw with Bolton Wanderers has earned them a replay at the struggling Championship side’s Macron Stadium. As the last non-league side left in the competition, the National Leaguers felt that the replay deserved to be covered by the BBC. If it had been chosen, Eastleigh would have earned £70,000-plus. They’re also not happy that the prospective fourth round tie with Leeds United is also not on the list. As a result, they are considering banning the BBC’s Football Focus from their ground.

Eastleigh’s protest shows you how much non-league has changed. In the past, a club would be doffing its cap and falling to their knees to thank the BBC for even the slightest interest in them. But it is possible that the BBC just didn’t think a non-league side playing a bottom of the Championship team was particularly attractive for viewers, and they’re probably right. The BBC doesn’t get many live games these days versus BT and SKY, so it probably wanted to screen a game that had a good chance of getting credible viewing figures. Eastleigh attract fewer than 2,000 to their home games, Bolton are averaging 15,000 – the likely TV audience would not set any records. If Eastleigh win, a few people will raise their eyebrows, but given the parlous state of Bolton these days, it won’t create too many tremors. And if Bolton do win, it will be because they should win…against those “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers”.

It’s not just teams and players that have changed since the days of the amateur or even the early years of the Conference. Non-league supporters are also changing. This is manifesting itself in the form of fan-ownership proposals and also a new type of fan attaching themselves to non-league clubs.

Sea change

Supporter-ownership is something to be encouraged. Why, after all, should benefactors prop-up non-league clubs when there is little to be gained from an investment perspective, particularly with clubs that have large Football League or Premier League outfits on their doorstep? Why be reliant on a “sugar daddy” that could take his or her ball away at any stage? Why not be self-sufficient?

Non-league fans are closer to the concept of “our club” than their bigger cousins. Premier and Football League clubs are mini corporations, while non-league small town football has to be community entrenched. The best way to achieve that unique bond and cause is to make the supporters genuine stakeholders. Supporters Direct is one of the organisations that helps fans establish democratic cooperatives that can gain influence in the running and ownership of clubs. Every month you read of another club contemplating a move towards community ownership – Bradford Park Avenue are one of the latest to announce they are considering such an initiative.

There are also a number of clubs that have suddenly acquired groups of younger supporters that are creating a different and somewhat vibrant dynamic at non-league football matches – two such clubs are Clapton and Dulwich Hamlet. Having witnessed both clubs’ fans in action, it is like nothing else I have seen, apart from in Italy and Spain. These fans are breaking the mould of the stereotypical non-league audience of the past – middle-aged, bearded, a deep interest in real ale, and a near-absence of women. It’s good news, even if you are uncomfortable with the political motivation of some of the fans, because non-league football needs younger people and certainly a more balanced demographic.

The media, especially the likes of The Guardian, is well aware of Clapton and Dulwich. But almost every article I have read on the subject of the two clubs suggests that many of the fans themselves believe the media – indeed any casual onlooker – doesn’t really get what’s happening among a small number of clubs. It may take some time for people to fully comprehend what is taking place, but if this trend grows – which I think it will as disenfranchised fans, unable to meet the financial ask of an Arsenal or Chelsea ticket, gravitate towards affordable football – the very nature of non-league may undergo an exciting metamorphosis. Let’s hope so.


twitter: @gameofthepeople

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