MY local club, Hitchin Town, recently received a visit from Arsenal, or at least, a team wearing Arsenal colours. For the youngsters that attended, it was a delight to see a batch of under-21 players who, at best, will probably only see a little amount of first team football for Arsenal.
The game was billed as an Arsenal “XI”, which loosely translated means that it wasn’t ever going to be a first team squad – it couldn’t be as it was international week and the Gunners’ payroll was on national service. But Hitchin were pleased with a 1,200 crowd and some much-needed cash for the coffers. It was a hugely successful evening for the club and pay-back for the officials who worked hard to get the London club to provide the opposition.
Getting a name like Arsenal to honour the club with its presence is no mean feat but they’ve always struck me as a classy organisation (despite my allegiance to the other side of the capital), but should this sort of fixture not be a firm calendar event? If football is a food chain, then surely the big clubs are duty-bound to routinely take their name and prestige around the country?
Almost all non-league clubs have a bigger cousin in their vicinity. For Hitchin it is Luton Town (always good neighbours with their annual visit), Stevenage, and further down the railway line, Arsenal. Most institutions of Arsenal’s stature have dozens of smaller outfits in their neighbourhood. By playing these clubs, perhaps on a rotation basis, closer links can be forged and a little bit of money can [naturally] pass down the chain. Some may already be doing this as part of their community programmes.
In certain parts of Europe, the establishment clubs make a point of going on tour to allow their more modest relations to benefit from friendly/exhibition games that form part of the senior club’s pre-season planning. It used to be somewhat similar in Britain, but today, so many British clubs travel abroad in the pursuit of globalising their name – they’re very interested in the concept of selling their brand to emerging football markets. If you’re very lucky, you might see an “XI” turn up at the local Southern League or Isthmian League club. Often it depends on who your manager knows or used to play with.
I recall, with pleasure, arranging Hitchin’s pre-season schedule in 1993 and coming up trumps (small T) in getting Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Orient and QPR all in one glorious summer. Ironically, the late George Armstrong, whose family was present at Hitchin this week, was in charge of the Arsenal side that night (Hitchin won 2-0 against a team that included Wembley hero Steve Morrow) and spoke of how much he enjoyed taking teams to non-league grounds where the welcome was always so good. It was a similar message from a very strong Chelsea team led by newly-appointed Glenn Hoddle, who spent quite some time after the game to talk to people from Hitchin.
The benefits are not one-way, far from it. Sending teams out in the Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham colours can be a massively positive PR exercise – it’s “beads for the natives” and backslaps all round. You might argue that they don’t need to try too hard to win friends and influence people in their own backyard, but making sure that the system in their own country is fit, robust and thriving has to be a sound investment- something that may become more relevant as Britain exits the European Union.
Of course, there will always be too many non-league clubs to serve – Britain is awash with small football entities that are struggling to make ends meet. So why not take the idea further and develop a network of affiliated clubs that can act as nurseries and testing grounds for new talent? The idea of nursery clubs has been frowned upon for decades, but it used to take place in the 1930s and later years and there were some successes.
It has been many years since clubs would sign a player on “amateur terms” and call upon them when they had shortages and injuries. In fact, some clubs had regular amateurs in their line-ups – Chelsea’s 1955 team had players like Jim Lewis and Seamus O’Connell and both were instrumental in the Blues first Football League Championship. That was another age, but it did show the link-up between non-league football and its more celebrated counterpart.
More immediately, with so much money being funnelled towards the top of the tree, if some form of redistribution of wealth is not possible, then a few coppers thrown down the pipe in the form of friendly matches should not be beyond the upper echelons of the game. Even if the mighty Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs fielded one “name”, that could make a significant difference, especially if the presence of that recovering-from-injury international was publicised ahead of the fixture.
Football is a free market but it should be second nature to the big clubs to help the lesser mortals. The gap between rich and poor is, apparently, getting bigger by the year in the broader economy. The same could certainly be said of the British football structure, perhaps even more so. To ensure that the overall football eco-system is healthy, the clubs at the top should take some responsibility – the community of which they all speak so passionately about “engaging” with these days also includes non-league clubs. Games like Arsenal XI v Hitchin Town should become part of the staple diet, not once-in-a-lifetime events. It’s a dream, but not an impossible one, surely?