Football didn’t come home, but it’s close to home

ENGLAND’S World Cup adventure may have ended in heartbreak, but if non-league football plays its cards right, it could exploit the goodwill impact of an extraordinarily successful campaign in Russia.

There’s no doubt that the nation got behind waistcoated and bearded Gareth Southgate and his young team in much the same way that in Euro ‘96 we all believed that “football was coming home”. Football did go home this time, but it took a flight to Zagreb, Croatia.

But for once, English football exceeded expectations and how often can we say that has happened?

Now the work begins and non-league clubs can really benefit from this upturn in the nation’s fortunes. How? It is relatively simple, there’s an opportunity to capitalise on the renewed interest in the game at a national level and capture some new fans at non-league grounds. Younger fans have, quite noticeably, wanted to be part of the shared experience, that’s the zeitgeist at the moment. Why not reach-out to these supporters and secure them as stakeholders in local football clubs? Let’s be frank, the pricing of top level football makes it prohibitive to many segments of the community. Furthermore, at the highest level, we’re almost at capacity when it comes to stadium utilisation. Even if they wanted to go, and could afford to pay the prices, there’s limited availability to see the top clubs.

After England won the World Cup in 1966 and reached the semi-final in 1990, the game across the country received a boost. In 1966, gates went up and after 1990, we saw the introduction of the Premier League. While the latter really created a football society of haves and have-nots, the game’s immense popularity today owes its roots to Italia ‘90. We cannot expect Premier League football to grow much more than the level it is at today, but surely lower down, the selling point is, “we’re all playing the same game” albeit at a less proficient level.

The important element of taking advantage of the World Cup effect is building and prolonging that spirit that seems to typify major events like the 2012 Olympics, (dare I say) Royal Weddings and other national events. People who never usually speak to each other engage in conversation at such landmark occasions. The World Cup is definitely one of those moments in time and usually in England’s case, it has been to commiserate with each other at under-performance. The World Cup is the largest sporting event on the planet and it can influence people in many different ways. I recall in 1990 one of the players from our local team turning up for the first game with a very close-cropped hair style, only for the fans to start calling him Schillaci because of his new look. Schillaci? He was the wide-eyed, rather limited but successful striker that had his moment of fame in Italia ‘90. A small thing, but there are other instances where the World Cup has left its mark.

How can non-league clubs use the World Cup to their advantage? For a start, make admission prices attractive, not just by comparisons to the local Premier League or League Two club, but also as an inducement to nurture new fans. Then maybe tie-in home games with TV events that bring people into the clubhouse after a game and create that community feeling – perhaps use international matches as a way to recreate the atmosphere we’ve seen around Britain’s towns during this World Cup. And how about actively advertising to build a young supporter group, a band, quasi “ultra” group to give non-league grounds more atmosphere and lower the average age of the crowd.

It’s also worth using the link between non-league and the international set-up, with fantastic examples like Jamie Vardy. If more people can see that World Cups also owe their roots to the very heart of the game and are not just about the Messis and Ronaldos of this world, then non-league’s credibility and appeal can be broadened.

Is this just all a pipe-dream? Just consider that the song that seems to typify national support for England is “football’s coming home”. Perhaps we should recraft the lyrics to suggest that football’s not just coming home but it is also “close to home” – just around the corner from your living room. Isn’t that the essence of non-league? The next few weeks can be a big chance for non-league clubs to maintain the momentum of the summer of 2018. Let’s not let it go to waste!

Photo: PA

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