NON-LEAGUE football has been part of my DNA for the past 30 years, but I’m sad to say that I no longer get the buzz I used to experience from this level of the game. There are a number of reasons and none of them imply that non-league is less important than it used to be, indeed there is an upturn in interest at some clubs as the gulf between the upper echelons of football and the rest of the structure marginalises some supporters. It’s purely personal.
Mostly, it’s about the standard of football, which I truly believe has deteriorated over the past decade. The quality of, for example, step three, is definitely lower and lacks the skill and aggression it once had. The players are fitter, no question, and more conditioned, but tackling is rare and muscular challenges outlawed. The game is increasingly becoming tame and cries out for a more robust and committed approach that does not manifest itself merely in the form of platitudes via social media, badge-kissing and self-praise.
Too often, matches appear to lack real passion, played on pitches that become subject to inspection at the first sight of a bit of mud. The old cliché of “mud is a great leveller” is almost redundant. There’s no blood and thunder anymore.
One of the main influences on how a game progresses is down to the crowd. An average game can appear so much better if there’s a decent crowd making all the right noises. Many non-league crowds are moribund and all too frequently, the most noise comes from the pitch or the dugout. This could be down to the demographic at a lot of clubs, although there are signs that a younger audience may be just around the corner. Bring it on, I say.
Another reason why non-league has started to irritate is the constant tinkering with league structures and yet there are still ridiculous journeys made by clubs to play in front of small crowds. It simply doesn’t make sense for clubs to travel a couple of hundred miles to play before 150-200 people. It’s not an easy equation by any means, but at some point, non-league will have to adopt a sensible geographic carve-up, eradicating the little empires run by blazered leagues and unifying them under the FA’s banner.
Clubs even at non-league level do not take cup competitions seriously, apart from the FA Cup, which has financial rewards as well as the prospect of massive publicity. Even the FA Trophy is not given priority by many clubs and as a result, crowds are invariably disappointing. Other cup competitions are treated with disdain by managers who field under-strength sides, rather like clubs from the Football League and Premier League.
I’ve often said it, but I truly believe that non-league football is really for the committed die-hards who have a firm allegiance to a club. They are real fans who are mainly concerned with their team getting a result. They often don’t care how it is achieved, but they want to see their team win. If you take the undying loyalty out of the picture, non-league has a challenge to entertain the neutral or the casual fan sticking his or her nose inside the ground out of curiosity. It’s a challenge that many cannot rise to.
Over the past three or four years, I can count on one hand the number of non-league games I have actually enjoyed. For 20-odd years, I was involved with a non-league club. The results mattered to me and a win was a win. In 2013, I left the club and now only occasionally watch them, even though I have a season ticket. I also have a season ticket at Fulham and watch Chelsea when I can get a ticket. I also include overseas games as part of my football diet.
I have visited many non-league clubs over the past six seasons, from National League to Step 5. Often, I leave before the end because I have been bored or the quality has disappointed. By removing the commitment of the partisan from my spectating experience, I want to be entertained, be impressed and above all, enjoy the game. I get no pleasure in saying I have rarely left the ground considering myself lucky to have been in attendance.
I sincerely hope that I regain my appetite for non-league, but at the moment, my local club provides the only football at that level. They’re not having a good season, which probably doesn’t help, but I will stick with it. I still believe non-league offers an alternative to the corporatisation of football and also a place for those unwilling or unable to afford the high prices at Premier and Football League stadiums. I would just like a little more passion.