A FEW weeks ago, every railway station leading into London Kings Cross had people with cameras and notebooks perched at the end of their platforms. The reason? The Flying Scotsman was heading north from London for the first time in years. “I don’t get it,” said someone on the 7.36 am train into London. “I simply don’t understand why people are so desperate to see a train.”
Railway enthusiasts are in a similar class to non-league supporters – their abiding passion is a mystery to neutral bystanders. Years ago, if you took a straw poll of youngsters in a random primary school, half of them would have declared their ambition to be “a train driver”. Those that didn’t collected the numbers of trains. Today, groundhoppers collect football grounds in the same way.
But aside from the obsessives and die-hards that merely want to follow their local team, either from a deep-rooted sense of communal or family loyalty or for more pragmatic (financial) reasons, non-league football is still a grey area for the rest of society.
At the end of February, I covered a FA Vase game for the Non-League Paper at Kidlington. One of the real pleasures about doing the odd game for the NLP is you can get sent to some interesting new outposts. To be honest, I didn’t know where Kidlington was when Stuart Hammonds asked me to travel to Oxfordshire. I have a friend who lives just outside Oxford, so it worked for me, but he had no idea that nearby Kidlington even had a football team, let alone one that was in the last eight of the Vase. “You mean the rugby club?,” he asked, when I told him I was in town. Before the game, in a Cotswoldian pub, I was in discussion with some locals, and their reaction was, “Kidlington? They have a football team? And people pay to watch them?.”
That same conversation could be had in any location across the country. Invariably people in the town know of the local club’s existence, but very few will realise that not only do people pay to watch, but the players get paid to play. “Surely, they’re amateurs,” is the typical comment that will come from a discussion with the uninitiated – people who have no idea that amateurism went out with flared trousers, kipper ties and platform shoes.
You can have similar dialogue with people in continental Europe, although there are the Dutch and German eccentrics who come to the UK to watch non-league games right down to a relatively low level. However, about two years ago, I was having lunch with three Danish internationals, including Kim Vilfort, one of the Danes’ 1992 heroes, and the subject of local football was brought to the table. I was about to watch a second division game in Copenhagen and I asked if players were paid at at that level. After they had almost choked on their herrings and rye bread, the comment was, “With crowds of 200-300…are you really serious?”. When I told them that in England clubs with similar support pay their players, they really thought I was joking. “Are they not all bankrupt?”. Actually, the Danish FA doesn’t allow them to pay players below the top level.
To some extent, the media in the UK don’t really “get” non-league football, either. Too often, especially when the FA Cup is involved, non-league gets patronized with the national press wanting to hear about the “butchers, bakers, candlestick maker” element of the lowly non-league side taking on the big boys. I have personal experience of this having been involved with Hitchin in the mid-1990s when they became FA Cup giant-killers. When Micky Wilson, “a tarmac layer”, scored one of the Canaries’ goals, the press were keen to get a shot of his lorry, parked in the ground, dripping with black tar. It’s the “sombrero on head” tactic that used to be the trademark of some photographers. “Those plucky amateurs,” and all that! In fairness to the national media, the rise of “fan culture” and wall-to-wall football on TV has raised awareness and more understanding of the non-league game.
Nick Hornby, the author that spawned a thousand imitators, suggested in Fever Pitch that when non-league football started to matter too much that he knew things were going a bit astray. While nobody should ever subscribe to Bill Shankly’s “more important than life” ethos, this hinted to me that Arsenal’s most famous pen-wielding fan, for all his groundbreaking literature on the irrational behavior of a football supporter, clearly didn’t “get” non-league (he might do now, though). He was certainly not walking alone there…
This article appeared in the Non-League Paper, Sunday March 13 2016.