NON-LEAGUE football clubs like “their own” and jealously hang on to their favourites. It is arguably one of the big differences between the professional game and non-league – in the big time, squads are very transient, despite all the badge-kissing, shirt-clutching and, in extreme cases, heart-shaped hand gestures. Players are, generally, here today and gone tomorrow. Money talks and overrides any empty symbols of love and affection.
In the non-league game, every club has its characters that are forgiven everything, no matter how they might stray – unless of course, you happen to eat a pie on TV and have a bet on it. It’s accepted that non-league is a breeding ground for more senior football, so people acknowledge that their best players, if indeed they are good enough, will be enticed away and may even raise some much-needed cash for the club in the process.
But should that be the end of the relationship between that promising young striker and the club? Should he return to the club if things do not work out for him at a higher level? Will it ever truly be the same?
It happens. Players return all the time in non-league football and there are a number of reasons: geography; comfort zones; and loyalty. Mostly, it is all about the first two, although there are some players – and they are more likely to be found in non-league – who are really one-club men.
But how often does the second stint turn out to be disappointing? Let’s consider that “Freddie X” is playing in Ryman One for a team in Essex. He’s scoring goals and bigger clubs are keen on him. He joins the National South side and sits on the bench in the first half of the season. What’s more, when he gets a chance, he struggles to make an impact. Then he gets injured. The move up has not gone as planned, so his old club start to make enquiries for a mid-season loan. When he returns, he looks down-at-mouth, a wee bit slower and struggles to make the team. The move up the ladder has damaged Freddie’s confidence, fitness and overall game.
At the end of the season, during which supporters and officials of the Essex club have been speculating that Freddie will make a triumphant return home, he’s let go by the National South side and there’s a bit of a free-for-all to sign him. At a lower level. Freddie decides he’s going back to his old club. “Better the devil you know”.
Freddie starts the next season a little off the pace and just doesn’t look the same player. He’s lost that joie de vivre, that little spark that was a differentiator when he was last at the club. The fans don’t understand it and the benchmen don’t get it. “Freddie has to get his head together,” is the message from the manager, explaining that the disappointment of not making it at a higher level has been detrimental for the player.
Eventually, Freddie should come again, but this anti-climatic period in his career is only logical. Players, on their way up, are full of drive, energy and aggression. They have a goal – to play at the highest level possible, either with or without their club. It is only natural that a potential-rich player will want to test himself.
But for every player that can do it, there are dozens who find a step up is one too far, and so when they are rejected, it is a facet of human nature that they will feel disappointment. The more pragmatic and intelligent players will know that life goes on, but those that have had a dream punctured will suffer, but probably only in the short term.
So the question is, should clubs and players immediately look for the comfort of their old relationship in these circumstances or does a return home offer the best solution for a player whose feeling unloved? Does it show a lack of imagination on the part of both the player and the club?
It’s a little like life in the corporate world, returning to a former employer after a lucrative move has not lived-up to expectations, can be tantamount to eating humble pie and the suggestion that the grass was not greener on the other side, after all.
Of course, some “second marriages” do work extraordinarily well, but so many do not. The answer may be to delay a return, either by having a halfway house to get that confidence back before rejoining your old team-mates. A convalescence period, perhaps?