Non-league, the “slice of life”

Photo: Peter Else
Photo: Peter Else

WE live in an age where everyone’s a journalist or blogger, anyone can make a film or video and we all want news and information (getting them to pay for it is another story, though). Social media rules the waves and basically, there’s virtually no-one who doesn’t have a story to tell you.

So should we be that surprised that suddenly, there seems to be a bit of noise about non-league football? The TV documentary on Salford City raised awareness of the game at this level and I am sure that most clubs could identify with some of the issues, problems and hurdles that Salford’s second biggest club (!) endured. Not everyone can entice the likes of Gary Neville and his pals to their little homes, but if the involvement of the Class of ’92 can help up the profile of the hundreds of clubs struggling for survival, then it cannot be such a bad thing.

Similar tales will no doubt be told about Lincoln United in a documentary produced by a University of Lincoln student – promotion, ground improvements, heart of the community, butchers, bakers and gas men, you know the script. Lincoln United, “Lincoln’s second biggest club”, will enjoy the exposure, I am sure.

And then we have a TV series called Rovers which appears on SKY. It’s about an “amateur” team that plays in front of 27 people at a ground next to a rubbish dump. There’s meat raffles, pork scratchings and the usual motley crew of obsessives. All human life is here – “it takes all sorts” as they say. And this really sums up the non-league condition.

Why has non-league suddenly appealed to a new, inquisitive audience? I think it has something to do with the growing indifference of some people to the corporatisation of top level football. I would be the first to admit that I actually enjoy the top level, and in particular, travelling to continental Europe to watch games at exotic, and some less exotic, places. I have always loved the romance of European football – crack Eastern Europeans, disciplined Russians, fiery latinos and similar stereotypes. But I also like the grassroots, club-in-the-community element of non-league football. I always thought that it was the elephants’ graveyard for football supporters who didn’t have the energy or resources to keep making treks to London to see their favourite club. A sort of “second best alternative”.

Your local non-league club is like a living Yellow Pages

After spending 20 years involved in the game at non-league level, I see it very differently, and I think a lot of people also have the same mindset. People are discovering that they have a local club and because other avenues are closed to them – either financially or bureaucratically – they are starting to focus on football clubs that can be better accessed. That media studies student who wants to shoot a video can do it at his local “United” or “Wanderers”, that aspiring journalist can offer her services at the local club who are always desperate for help with their programme. And do you know what? Your local non-league club is also like a living, organic Yellow Pages or Thomson’s directory. Fred will know a plumber who stands on the terrace behind the goal, old Harry in the stand is an electrician who’s reasonably cheap and steady old Jim does a bit of accountancy in his spare time and can help you with your Tax return. I cannot count how many times I have used people with a “special set of skills” that happen to be connected with the football club.

As I said, “all human life is here” and with that comes humour, joy, disappointment and sometimes, tragic little tales.  The football is only part of the story and really, it is the bigger picture, the whole package that people are being drawn to – an alternative society. I am not sure that a non-league comedy will be as groundbreaking as the “slice of life” dramas peddled by the likes of 60s playwright Shelagh Delaney of A taste of honey fame, but it may open a few doors. Very few people thought Coronation Street would endure, that its saga of ordinary folk and their ordinary lives would be too dull to appeal to viewers, and that hasn’t done too badly…

This article appears in the Non-League Paper, Sunday May 8, 2016

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