WITH nobody allowed near a Premier League turnstile and everyone being advised to adopt a simpler, more fulfilling life while they refrain from breathing the same air as their neighbour, non-league football may have a golden opportunity to win more friends and influence for folk.
When a magazine like Monocle, a pretentious coffee table monthly (which I have subscribed to for around five years), recommends their readers – in pursuit of a gentler life – adopt their local sports club, then you know something is afoot. Monocle people, generally speaking, are about as far away from football fans as you could possibly be. Wild swimming, shopping for high end goods, sauntering down boulevards and loitering around kiosks and hopping on inter-city flights is more their game.
This is just one example of a sea change that is developing, for the football hungry public, desperate to feel the buzz and animal spirits of a match, may just decide the shabby non-league club across the common might be worth a visit.
There’s little sign that fans will be allowed back into top flight games any time soon, indeed if a second wave hits Europe, that will delay things even further. The fact is, nobody is going to allow 70,000 people into a stadium for a long time to come. But smaller crowds in a more restrained environment could be just the ticket – unless another lockdown comes along, of course.
This could be non-league clubs’ chance to show the uninterested and apathetic that this level of the game really provides a humane and personal option. Animal spirits are in short supply, and in this age of spectacle-misting masks and sanitiser, thank heaven for that. But it is not just the game itself that may attract people – in terms of quality, expectations certainly have to be lowered – it is also about being in a place where other people are sharing the same experience.
Don’t forget, when a crowd sings in praise of a team or player, they are singing, “We” all agree, not “I”. There are two teams on the field of play and another two teams of supporters.
In this strange and worrying time, being able to watch something like a football match and being part of an audience has suddenly become more than just sport. We have been shut away for too long and we still have no clue when the restricted life will open-up once more. It is a fair assumption there will be a “new normal”, we will not necessarily go back to how we used to live.
For example, who will want to be seated in a stadium alongside 30,000 other people? Who will ever look at a buffet in the same way? How will we feel when a crowded tube train taking us to the Emirates, Stamford Bridge or the London Stadium rolls into a station? The matchday condition once delivered a pot pourri of aromas – beer, cigarettes, sweat, urine, after shave/perfume, chewing gum, flatulence and halitosis. Now add to that the possibility of a life threatening illness. Does that sound a compelling proposition?
With social distancing likely to continue for some time, the average non-league stadium, which is invariably no more than 20% full, offers an escape route from all this. Admittedly, some youngsters who still believe they will live forever will ignore such advice, but when life is so fragile, why shorten the odds?
If football fans long for their Saturday afternoons to change, then they should stroll along to their non-league club this coming weekend. They probably won’t know the players, indeed squads change so much these days regulars will struggle to name their team, but step three might just be a tentative step back to something like normality. You never know, it may become habit-forming.
Around a year ago, I happened to mention that the non-league game had lost its magic for me, an admission that made me a little sad. Then along game the pandemic and I have to admit, I am so looking forward to Hitchin Town v Alvechurch this Saturday. With my mask on, naturally.
Photo: PA Images