I’VE just returned from France and the European Championships. I was fortunate enough to be at Austria versus Hungary game in Bordeaux. After seeing TV footage of Russian and English fans fighting in the street and in the stadium, it was a relief to be among two sets of fans who were clearly enjoying the experience of being at a major competition.
What’s really great about the Euros is the fellowship among football fans, not unlike what happens almost every week when you follow the non-league game. People talk to each other, share a few laughs and even buy each other a drink or two.
So it was great to bump into a gaggle of Austrians fans from Graz who wanted to tell me they sometimes came to England to see very “weird” football grounds at some pretty remote places. They were keen to know when the 2016-17 Non-League Day was being held. They wanted to make sure they tied-in their next trip to England on that weekend.
Rarely in Europe does football at non-league level attract the sort of devotion it does in England. In some countries, the drop into near non-league territory is quite dramatic. But there are clubs that attract healthyish crowds due to their cult status. In Germany, for example, Lokomotiv Leipzig, a name that many will recall from the old DDR days, were playing in front of decent crowds in the very regional German leagues. And if you drop down a couple of leagues in Belgium, admittedly not quite non-league, you can come across the wonderful old club in Brussels called Union St. Gilloise, where they have had their fair share of eccentrics, including the late, and apparently legendary, Elvis Carolo.
But across Europe, lower league and non-league is often a function, not an emotion, played in front of very few fans in grounds that don’t really cater too well for spectators. In the UK, the performance of a non-league fan’s club is every bit as important as it is for fans of Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea. They fret just as much, wring their hands even more and gaze sorrowfully into the distance after a defeat. That’s not to say that this doesn’t exist in continental Europe, but there’s something quite unique about the non-league condition in this country.
Supporters from abroad recognise this special element of the English game, and that’s why you get groups of slightly bonkers German, Dutch (and Austrian) supporters coming over to England to watch Ham and Egg Sandwich Albion play Stilton Athletic. Sheffield FC, for example, get regular visits from people from across Europe, attracted to the club’s heritage.
They like the “subbuteo effect” that non-league football provides – small town football grounds with a stand, a fence, a tea hut, some street-lamp floodlights and cups of steaming Bovril. It’s about as English as brass bands, Cornish pasties and warm beer – and our friends from afar love it.
For some people, discovering an obscure non-league football club is like coming across an old second-hand bookshop in some alleyway of the main drag. Often, an old established football club is a town’s “best kept secret”, especially those that have time-warp stands, invariably painted corporation green with creaky wooden fencing. The traditional non-league fan likes nothing more than a relic, but it is also this quaint earthiness that appeals to foreign visitors. Likewise, some English fans make short journeys across the channel to see French, Belgian or Dutch teams. There’s a particularly devoted set of eccentric Brits that hold season tickets for Lens in France, for example.
As batty as they might be, it is reassuring to come across people who are there to enjoy football, meet like-minded folk from other countries, slap each other on the back and share the occasion. It’s a million miles away from the scenes you saw on TV in Marseille, and thank goodness for that.
This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday, June 19, 2016