When two worlds collide: Premier meets non-league

TRYING to attract more supporters via marketing initiatives is a worthwhile exercise for non-league clubs. Projects like Non-League Day and reduced admission for certain games have their place and have proved very fruitful in most cases. Indeed, their success does raise questions around the pricing structure for football outside of the Football League. If non-league was cheaper, more people would surely attend games. 

Coalville from the Southern League launched a £ 5 admission day when they met Hitchin Town on February 5. The response was particularly good, Coalville had an excellent crowd of over 800, with only a dozen or so coming from Hertfordshire. Football for a fiver had clearly appealed to a lot of local folk.

However, while filling the ground and creating a buzz, Coalville drew a lot of fans who were unaccustomed to non-league football. It was very noticeable these spectators really did not understand the attraction of the game at this level for those that attend regularly. 

Non-league, generally, is a more sedate affair, there is a good natured atmosphere at the majority of grounds and civility tends to dominate. This seemed lost on the horde of fans who concentrated on foul-mouthed abuse of the Hitchin team and the gaggle of supporters who travelled up to Leicestershire. To be honest, the language was worse than any Football League/Premier League ground I have visited in the past few years. 

Clearly, they were not Coalville fans, for their chanting also included “We hate Forest”, which implied they may well have been Leicester City fans. Nottingham Forest were hosting Leicester the following day in the FA Cup. It is doubtful they were fans of Coalville, because Forest do not move in their immediate circle of clubs!

The Hitchin fans were a little intimidated and their expressions told the locals they were not impressed. “If you don’t like it, f*** off to the way end,” said one fan. Again, this comment only served to confirm the influx was largely unused to the non-league system, where fans change ends to stand behind the goal their team is attacking.

Meanwhile, the high-vis gang who were stewarding the game just stood and watched as abuse poured from the terrace. What is the point of employing security staff if they do nothing but grin? 

It has to be said, there were no prudes among the Hitchin contingent, but essentially, the age group is late 50s, early 60s. In other words, they were not going to trade insults with dozens of teenagers and 20-30 year-olds. They did Coalville no service, which is a great shame as the club itself was as friendly as any non-league outfit. Coalville took a bold decision to cut prices to encourage more local football fans to come along and it worked. Unfortunately, cultural differences undid them to a certain degree, even though they did get the three points.

Hitchin have had their own experience of Premier fans turning up and making a nuisance of themselves a few years ago when a gang of Everton supporters, on route to Stevenage for a FA Cup tie, barged their way into Top Field. For those who went to Coalville, they must have returned home appreciating their own club.

Football’s looming missile crisis

HERE we go again. Football fans are back in the stadiums, the long and often heated debate about safe standing seems to be heading in the right direction for those that have been longing for the atmosphere of old and lo and behold, we have increased hooliganism to go with it. Yes, it is hooliganism, a nasty, invasive form of violence. 

This is not merely a case of cautious warnings like “be careful, that’ll have your eye out,” the throwing of objects at players is specifically designed to hurt and inflict damage on bodies. How long do we have to wait before a player’s eye is lost or something substantial knocks someone unconscious? This, the sport that goes out of its way to virtue signal whenever it can, the pastime where spectators are quick to declare their love of their club. Throwing lighters, bottles or anything they have to hand is considered OK, because the opposition have scored a goal, yet it’s cowardly, anti-social and drags down the name of the club and the game in general.

Over the decades, we’ve had all forms of deterrants to supress violence. The naïve often suggest violence is a thing of the past, but it’s always there, just below the surface, just as racism has always been there, waiting to find its release valve. It doesn’t take long to hear a group of people making a racist, sexist or homophobic comment the longer an evening goes on and the flow of alcohol becomes more potent. 

It’s no coincidence that in the past five years Britain seems to have rediscovered a form of nationalism that has been the catalyst for racism and anti-semitism. The resurgence of football hooliganism may be linked in some way. On the other hand, the repeated lockdowns and accompanying frustration this has brought could have something to do with this phenomenum. 

It’s a problem that is spreading, faster than we want to believe. The latest round of matches saw Aston Villa’s players struck by missiles after they had just scored against Everton at Goodison Park. Everton are having a bad time and it’s a club clearly unhappy with itself, but this was disgraceful and thankfully, the Police have grabbed the offenders. At Old Trafford, West Ham fans were apparently caught hurling items, while at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s Rüdiger was hit by disposable cigarette lighters. Similarly, at Arsenal, when Manchester City scored their late winner, their team was showered with objects. Like most things in football, when something becomes a trend, it is usually not long before grounds up and down the country have the problem. Furthermore, it’s not just players that will have to wary of flying bombs, other fans, be they men, women or children, could also be hit.

And this is all going to have consequences. Safe standing is being tested and so far, it appears to have been successful, but if fans continue to throw things, how easy would it be to blame the introduction of standing for the change in fan behaviour, even if there is no direct correlation?

The recent police report reveals that football-related arrests have risen by 47% since the start of the season and disorder has generally increased at games. Undoubtedly, there’s greater vigilance since the Euros when drunk fans stormed the barriers at Wembley.

With the pandemic already demanding greater pre-match preparations, increased security to ensure potential weapons are not taken into the stadium will mean more complications for matchday staff and those entering the arena.

Anyone who lived through the dark age of hooliganism and yearned for a more civilised experience will be hoping that we are not about to return to a less pleasant environment. Times have been tough for many people during the pandemic, but that’s no excuse to suddenly make football a game to be wary of once more. While missile throwing may be nothing more than a passing fad, we are turning back the clock a little. Wembley 2021 told us the mood might be changing, so let’s hope that’s not the case.