Rushall Olympic and the benefits of 3G and beyond

ON A bone-numbing afternoon, the only game that survived in some areas of non-league football appeared to be those at clubs with artificial pitches. One of those was the match at Dales Lane Arena between Rushall Olympic and Hitchin Town.

Rushall claim to be the most senior non-league club in Walsall and with the League Two team on their doorstep, it must be a struggle to get support. Rushall, in 2021-22, finished fourth in the Southern League Premier Central and averaged 371 at their home games. This season, gates have dropped to 304 and for the visit of Hitchin, admittedly on a freezing day, there were just 258 people who braved the conditions.

But at least Rushall were able to open their gates and stage a game, thanks to their excellent artificial pitch. Although some folk are against the installation of these artificial surfaces, they surely represent the future of non-league football. They are expensive, often costing a quarter of a million pounds, but the financial return can be impressive, especially if the facility is well marketed, appropriately maintained and the club has the foresight to provision for its replacement on an annual basis.

These pitches have come a long way since their introduction, so much so that you can barely notice the pitch is artificial in terms of the quality of play. The crazy thing is that the Football League do not permit their use for competitive fixtures as evidenced when Sutton United were promoted to the league and had to remove their pitch, which had contributed so much to their success on and off the field. As a commercial facility, a pitch can be in full use seven days a week and generate substantial revenues. FIFA and UEFA both allow their use, but not the Football League. Seems bizarre, doesn’t it? For a non-league club, an artificial surface can be a life-saver, especially when many clubs’ business models are largely unsustainable.

The pitch played well for the game between Rushall and Hitchin. The home side won 3-1 and the standard of football provided a good advertisement for Step three non-league. Now we just need to do something about standing around in the icy weather watching football.

More crowd tension for non-league football?

MOST non-league clubs are quite friendly places, very few have fans that carry an air of menace with them. At many stadiums, the atmosphere is sleepy, welcoming and sedate. That’s not to say some clubs could do with a more youthful demographic to liven up the place, but nobody wants supporters who fancy a punch-up.

Alcohol has a lot to do with it – it always has – but there’s also an element of beligerance about some fans not normally associated with the non-league game.

Banbury United was always a decent ground to visit, a peculiar stadium close to the railway station in a prime spot. Little wonder that property developers have always liked the look of it. Banbury were never particularly well supported, 10 years ago they averaged less then 300 people for their home games. But something has changed in their little corner of Oxon. Not only have they run away with the Southern League Central Premier, they have also attracted more fans. With more people comes the potential of more troublesome individuals being among the crowd. At some Banbury games this season, there have been some problems, including an artificial pitch being damaged by a flare.

When Banbury arrived in Hitchin for their game on April 16, there was a police van parked outside Top Field, an image more in keeping with the miners’ strike in the 1980s. There was also a plethora of high-vis clad stewards, more than usual at Hitchin games. Interestingly, while the Banbury numbers were modest, they made plenty of noise, the script not always in keeping with the sort of family environment Hitchin have been encouraging.

Just after half-time, the peace was broken, but it was not entirely the fault of Banbury’s travelling support. Indeed, there were about a dozen Luton Town fans at Top Field who decided they wanted to antagonise the Banbury crew. There was some ritualistic throwing of beer, lots of pointing, aggressive posturing and a few blows were exchanged. The high-vis team swung into action and police arrived on time to disperse the problem, ejecting the Luton fans from the ground. Hitchin’s chairman and his matchday staff did well to quell the problem.

Non-league needs more fans, but the question is, where will they come from? The game at this level needs younger customers, but clubs may have to get used to more energy, aggression and the occasional fracas.

One of the comments I have often heard from young people is that non-league football is passionless, lacks a certain atmosphere and is a game for older people who don’t want to go to Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs. To a certain degree this is true, because it is the crowd that makes the stadium experience at a higher level. The noise, emotion and passion is fuelled by the people watching the game. A stadium doesn’t have an atmosphere with no people, no matter how people try and romanticise the vision of floodlights towering over empty stands. Therefore, more people means a more intoxicating atmosphere. For all the discomfort created by those Banbury fans, a big percentage of the near-600 crowd at Top Field were watching the situation as if it was something of a spectacle. It’s rather like the Atlético Madrid-Manchester City game, everyone was complaining about the antics of the home team, but they could not help but rubber-neck the action.

I am not advocating Football Factory-type scenes in the Southern League, but it could certainly do with a little more passion, singing and influence from the terraces at the majority of grounds. What it doesn’t need is needless scrapping and foul-mouthed day trippers who are not really non-league fans. There’s a big seam of disenfranchised football fans out there, non-league has to make sure it draws the right type of follower, but it also ensure it encourages rather than deters. It’s a bit of a challenge.