NLD, the new Boxing Day?

Hit the road, Trey – Charles, worth every penny of anyone’s admission. Photo: Peter Else

SINCE NON-LEAGUE DAY was introduced some years ago, sceptics suggested that it would fizzle-out and no longer benefit from the “novelty factor”. Not so, for increasingly people are discovering their local non-league club for the first time through NLD.

It is arguable that NLD has become what Christmas matches used to be – an opportunity for the local community to come together. While matches on Boxing Day have become a hindrance to some people, largely due to family commitments and sub-standard public transport around holiday times, Non-League Day has been cemented in the calendar.

Non-League clubs have made extraordinary efforts to attract new customers on NLD, offering lower admission prices, discounts for season ticket holders of Football League clubs and “pay what you want” schemes. Accompanied by imaginative publicity campaigns, this seems to have worked. But is it all really necessary?

NLD takes place on those infuriating weekends called “International breaks” when we are subjected to poor quality international football. However, these breaks do provide the opportunity for the non-league fraternity to scoop-up some temporary support. Do clubs really have to lower prices to make NLD a success, should they not have more confident in their product? I don’t think prices should be reduced for that purpose, as the support they are mostly reaching out to is already used to paying extortionate prices for tickets. So instead of £40 they pay £10? Seems reasonable to me.

However, by reducing prices, and creating a false scenario, non-league clubs are sending a signal that their current pricing might just be too high, which I firmly believe is the case. If you’re comfortable with £10 for step three football, then why reduce it to appeal to supporters who are already shelling-out multiples of that to watch Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham? “Pay what you want” certainly has its benefits, but I sense that it is not the pricing that attracts people to the game, but the underlying feeling that this is an “event” that shouldn’t be missed.

And this is where Hitchin Town made such a good job of NLD2017. Those old wooden terraces were packed with people coming out to take a peek of what’s really behind the big trees in Bedford Road or what lurks inside those gates in Fishponds Road. Old supporters, some coming from as far afield as Cyprus, returned to catch-up on the club’s activities and local journalists, who may well have been paying a visit for the first time since the glory days of 1994 (Hereford) and 1995 (Bristol Rovers), stood precariously on the ramshackle terracing, swigging beer from plastic glasses, realising that non-league is “the essence of football” after all. In Hitchin, the old Rhythms of the World festival, when it was held among the ancient streets, was very much a community affair before it went corporate. There was a hint of that around Top Field on NLD – with more than 750 people in attendance.

But what of the game? The first half was pretty average, but lit-up by two goals from the veteran Brett Donnelly, one a textbook header, the other a slow-moving sequence that saw him finish with a crisp shot. Stratford Town, their opponents, got worse as the game wore on.

If Donnelly was the man of the first 45 (he also hit the bar just after the interval), then Trey Charles was the star of the second. He came on late in the game, but he livened things up and tortured the Stratford defence with his unstructured runs down the flank and into the penalty area.

Charles was initially credited with the third Hitchin goal on 78 minutes when he slalomed his way through the Stratford defence and shot across goal, but it was Connor Vincent that actually scored. With three minutes to go, Charles was at it again, but this time, he followed up after his first effort was saved to get on the scoresheet. The Hitchin equivalent of “ultras”, a combination of late middle-aged regulars and a band of curious youngsters, enjoyed that one. So did Charles.

The crowd went home happy. Hitchin not only demonstrated that their early season wobbles were over, but they also put on a bit of a show for a large crowd – something they often fail to do. And Non-League Day, once more, was a resounding success.

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