“The essence of football” – the Soccerex take on non-league

AMID bizarre stories about Billericay Town’s dressing room and training ground, it was reassuring to hear about the more realistic and sustainable side of non-league football at Soccerex.

It was easy to agree with Guillem Balague’s opening gambit that non-league is too often described by what it isn’t rather than what it actually is. Considering that Balague rubs shoulders with La Liga’s luminaries on a regular basis, the fact that he has been seduced by a very different aspect of the game says a lot. Why else would an internationally-recognised journalist spend so much time with non-league step five Biggleswade United – “my passion” –  a  club that plays in front of sub-100 crowds?

Although non-league has many of the characteristics of top level football, in terms of managing people and expectations and in raising revenues, marketing non-league to a public that doesn’t always understand what it’s about is no easy task. “You need to have a strong narrative,” said Richard Tims, Chairman of Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest club. “And every club does have a story to tell. You have to get creative.”

Sheffield’s story is unique and Tims has leveraged its heritage to the full. “Every club in the world is genealogically linked to us,” he insisted. “Our audience is effectively around three billion.” Although there was an element of tongue-in-cheek about such a statement, if Sheffield is where it all started, then the football world certainly owes something to the club.

Sheffield may have used ancestry to good effect, but as Tims explained, Sheffield may have thousands of virtual acolytes, and receive millions of slaps on the back, but their average home gate is less than 300. “Goodwill doesn’t pay the bills,” he said.

Likewise, persuading would-be sponsors to lend a hand is not easy. “The dilemma that clubs like Sheffield have is trying to explain to investors/sponsors that their ‘investment’ results in an emotional return on investment,” said Tims.

Biggleswade United, where Balague is Director of Football, have to compete not just with top-line football, but also two other clubs in a Bedfordshire town that has a population of little more than 15,000. While their chairman, Chris Lewis, described non-league as “raw and pure”, Balague also admitted that when money enters the equation at this level of football, it becomes as toxic as a venom.

The playing budgets of clubs at the level of Sheffield and Biggleswade pale into insignificance when compared to the sort of money being talked of at Billericay, but Balague summed it up when he said many players adopt the attitude of “no pay, no commitment.”

People outside of the non-league game find it staggering that players actually get paid at all when they play before crowds of 150, but Tims believes “young men are driven by money and even players of 16,17 and 18 want to be paid. It is a British problem – football represents money.” Balague captured it perfectly when he said it was a reflection of today’s society.

On the plus side, people are still involved in non-league because they want to be part of something that is important to the community. “It is the essence of football and often undervalued, but it can be a fantastic experience,” said Biggleswade United’s Chris Lewis.

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