TO ME, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a North v South tussle in non-league football. Last weekend, I returned to one of my favourite locations, Stamford, to see the Daniels play Blyth Spartans. There’s a 200-mile gap between the two clubs, which does make you wonder about league allocations, but nobody was complaining too much.
Quite often, I feel that when a club has had to come some distance, the spirit among the fans is that little bit stronger. My experience of supporters from the North-East is that they love to have a chat about the game and they are generally passionate about their clubs.
On the journey home, I got involved in a conversation with some Blyth fans and they proudly told me they were the most well-known non-league club in the world. “Is that right?”, I asked. Surely, there are others more deserving of that title?
Certainly, the Blyth name is somewhat unique and they’ve had a FA Cup run or two to bring their name to the attention of people around the world, but so, too, have other clubs. So on my own trip back to Hertfordshire, I attempted to come up with half a dozen that might currently contest – for various reasons – Blyth’s “title”.
Sheffield FC The world’s first football club. They have been trading on that in recent years, and fair play to them. Sheffield receive visitors from all over the world and also act as ambassadors for the game in other countries. Sheffield may have to live in the shadows of United and Wednesday, but some people believe that the humble non-leaguers have more global profile than the two Football league clubs!
FC United of Manchester As a by-product of disillusioned Manchester United fans, FC United, naturally, benefit from world-wide recognition of their “parent” name. Hence, they are very well known.
Bradford Park Avenue When Bradford PA were voted out of the Football League in 1970, it was almost the end of the road, but a handful of folk kept the flame burning and they returned. Their history and name is enough to guarantee them public awareness, at least among middle-aged football fans and Yorkshire folk.
Salford City Again, the links with Manchester United make them newsworthy, which isn’t always appreciated by their rivals. The TV show and the involvement of the Class of ’92 have given the club visibility they could only have dreamed of in the past.
Grimsby Town Now six years a non-league club, Grimsby’s Football League history – they played in the very top flight of the game in the 1930s and 40s – means there are Mariners fans all over the place – including Histon in Cambridgeshire where the Red Lion pub claims to be the home of exiled Grimsby fans!
Corinthian Casuals No longer the force they were, but still paragons of a bygone age and their name lives on. The club’s links with Brazil ensure their name receives some global breadth.
Of course, you could add Tranmere Rovers, Wrexham, Lincoln City, Halifax, Chester, Southport, Stockport County, Hereford and Aldershot to the list of former Football League clubs (and their successors) that are now playing at a lower level. And if you wanted to trawl back through history, clubs like Bishop Auckland, Enfield, Crook, Dulwich Hamlet, Altrincham, Woking, Wimbledon and Yeovil Town have all benefitted from national eminence at some point.
The presence of former Football League clubs, which has made the National League so competitive and hard to get out of, doesn’t necessarily embrace the “romantic” aspect of being renowned for being “non-league”, and that’s where our friends from Blyth Spartans come in. And in that context, we should not forget two other names from the past – Pegasus and West Auckland Town. Pegasus was the team of Oxbridge undergrads who demonstrated that football wasn’t just the property of the cloth-capped working man. They won the FA Amateur Cup when the competition received strong media coverage.
West Auckland Town lifted the Thomas Lipton Trophy in 1909 and 1911, a competition that saw them come face-to-face with none other than Juventus. This was tagged the first “World Cup”, so for a while, West Auckland were probably seen as the top team in England!
Blyth Spartans are certainly one of the instantly recognisable names in non-league and from a regional perspective, they could bring some much-needed joy to the North-East at a time when the old “hotbed” is struggling at the highest level. But they are currently under pressure from another outfit from the area, Darlington, a club that was born out of the demise of a former Football League member. They’re probably pretty well known, too!
This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday April 3, 2016