Has non-league sold its soul?

IN RECENT years, non-league football has promoted itself as “real” and the game for local communities. Some clubs have embraced causes, have lent their hand to political movements and have championed inclusiveness. In particular, the drive to build the next generation of fans – a vitally important element given the audience of this level of the game – has rightly placed emphasis on youth development, young fan groups and charitable causes linked to children. Many claim to be “community clubs”, which gives them access to certain financial benefits and enhances their social profile.

But will non-league truly benefit from the current wave of sponsorship by online gambling company BetVictor? The Gibraltar-based bookmaker has long been involved in sport sponsorship, taking in darts, snooker, poker, horseracing and, of all things, ping-pong. It’s a company with a turnover of £ 1 billion, so it is sizeable.

But gambling is a major social problem in the UK, an addiction that has got out of hand with even children dipping their toes into the betting industry. Obviously the demographic of football lends itself to gambling and would-be sponsors are attracted by its mass appeal and media presence. Yet it has a poor reputation as it can create financial problems for people who are lured in by the promise of instant gratification. Given society has demanded that other addictive elements and behaviours – smoking, for one – are now considered to be anti-social, how can non-league football happily align itself with an activity that creates so much pain?

BetVictor is sponsoring the Southern League, Northern Premier League and Isthmian League in 2019-20, the result of a collective approach from the three leagues. Some people will claim that in this age of football’s over-exposure to the sector – look at the number of Premier League clubs backed by betting firms – it is only natural that non-league would like a slice of the pie. It is not as simple as that – non-league is played in front of small crowds, every aspect of the matchday experience is that much easier to consume.

Hence, everyone will know who the sponsor is by the end of 2019-20, which is good news for that sponsor, but not so good if you are trying to sell your local club in the community. Companies like to be associated with causes and partners that are seen as “worthy” and genuine contributors to society. A football club’s reputation is not just created by its own standards, it is also built on what that club represents and who it associates with. In the big time, football is already so immersed in convenient partnerships that it is arguably too late to change it, but non-league football, with its focus on community and neighbourhood, may not find that taking money from bookmakers (in other words, money gained from the plight of others) is sending the right set of messages.

Not everyone accepts this is the only way, despite the amount of liquidity in the gambling industry and the temptation to go where the money is. Italy has banned gambling sponsors and a little known club in Yorkshire, Headingley AFC, became the first to be sponsored by an anti-gambling organisation, “Gambling with Lives”.

This is not about accepting that non-league clubs should take money from whoever they like in order to fill their coffers. Values should play a big part in their business model and given what clubs are trying to achieve in order to differentiate themselves from, for example, Premier League football, they need to stay true to their supposed “community” role. In this case, gambling is as socially toxic as some of the habits that are no longer allowed to advertise in markets directly exposed to children. Don’t be seduced by taking the quick buck, that has to be the message.

Photo: PA

The trials of a nomadic existence

GRAYS Athletic play at a very nice stadium. Brand spanking new, great facilities and a football-friendly artificial surface that performs very well. The only problem is, the club is ground-sharing at Aveley, a town of 8,000 people some four miles from Grays.

They’re in their second year of a two-year agreement, and like most tenants, there is a degree of uncertainty about the future. Grays have been away from their home town for eight seasons now and the club’s loyal band of followers are hankering for a return to the town. As nice as Aveley’s Parkside ground is, as the old song goes, “there’s no place like home”.

The longer Grays are away from their ancestral seat, the links become more and more frayed. Of course, if and when the homecoming takes place, a “rebirth” exercise can rekindle public interest, but as fan bases get older and memories start to fade, any club that lives on the road runs the risk of an extinguished flame. Slough Town, a bigger club than Grays, went travelling for some time, playing at Beaconsfield in their latter years as tenants, before returning to an excellent new ground. If you have to borrow a ground, the Aveley stadium at Park Lane, on the fringes of Belhus Park, is as good a location as any – Glyn Balmer, a club director (until after the game I attended when he tendered his resignation), showed me around the stylish backrooms with no small degree of pride. “Wherever we go next, it will be hard to live up to this – we’re getting too used to it.”

Grays, as a town, has changed quite dramatically in the past decade. EssexLive reported in January this year that Grays South was the “most dangerous place in Thurrock” , but interestingly that same report listed Upminster (in Havering) as the fourth most intimidating area. As someone who knows Grays of old, and spent many hours in the Thameside Theatre and State cinema (the latter a classic of the 1930s), the town was never pretty, and a little hard at the edges, but never what you would call “dangerous”. Admittedly, my father was thrown through a shoe shop window in 1944, having been mistaken for a German (he was Danish and landed at Tilbury on a boat from Norway, fleeing the Nazis), but safety in Grays was never an issue when I lived in Thurrock.

But there’s no denying the area has its social problems. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage, the pop-up Brexit opportunist, was frequently pictured speaking in Thurrock and the borough’s “leave” vote was in excess of 72%. Everywhere I went, the same message was delivered, “too many foreigners and not enough jobs”. If Grays return to the riverside town of 30,000-plus, they may find it a somewhat different place from when they were last there.

In places like South Ockendon (the village/town of my youth), Aveley and Grays, the soundtrack has become very multi-cultural, with voices from central and eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. It does make you wonder if football clubs could actually leverage this by getting, for example, some Polish or African players from this influx to tap into local interest?

Regardless of sensitive politics and demographics, Grays officials like Glyn Jarvis are hopeful that people who have expressed an interest, or have temporarily suspended their allegiance, will throw their weight behind the club once more. At present, they are not forthcoming, but at a new ground, with a new focus, perhaps corporates and individuals may come forward. “The thing is, we need them now,” said Jarvis, with a hint of concern.

On the field of play, Grays are also in limbo. Now in the Bostik League North Division, they are perched behind the play-off zone but have found it hard to win at home. A week before I attended their game in the FA Trophy against Sevenoaks, they had picked up their first victory of the season at Parkside against Great Wakering, almost throwing-away a three-goal lead before winning 4-3. “The story of our season, we cannot play for 90 minutes,” said one Grays fan.

They’ve certainly had some disappointment already this season, losing 5-0 at home to Maldon & Tiptree and also going out of the FA Cup very cheaply at FC Romania of the Essex Senior League. Crowds have been lack-lustre, with two of their league games falling below 200. However, with October 13 being Non-League Day and a bright, sunny afternoon, the conditions for a decent crowd were in place. With only a few people from Sevenoaks – who were playing their first-ever FA Trophy tie – the crowd was 206, which was 18 people more than watched Aveley, Grays’ landlords the night before. Two games in two days, such are the benefits of an artificial pitch.

The match was an excellent advertisement for the non-league game. In the first half, Grays went two-up thanks to a couple of fine goals from their impressive Portuguese winger Joao Carlos. The wind may have assisted with the first strike, a free-kick from outside the area, but it was a spectacular effort all the same.

Sevenoaks had a tough task to turn it around, but their manager, Mickey Collins, said he was still confident at half-time that his team could come back. Collins, a chirpy character, turned out for Millwall, Charlton, Gillingham and Dartford in his playing days and has an infectious personality that clearly rubs-off on his players.

In the second half, Sevenoaks played superbly, pulling a goal back in the 55thminute through Kevin Sawyer and then equalising in the 72ndwhen Alec Fiddes shot home after Grays’ defence was found wanting. Another defensive lapse gave Sawyer the chance to put the visitors ahead two minutes later, and finally, in the last minute, the same player secured his hat-trick after breaking through the middle. Final score 4-2 in Sevenoaks’ favour.

Grays were, naturally, disappointed with the outcome, but they had played their part in an entertaining game that as Collins commented, “if you had paid to watch, you’d be pleased.” How very true.

So what does the future hold for Grays? As mentioned, they are in their second year at Aveley and they have to see where they go beyond that. They need their own ground, be it in Grays or close to home. Just a mile or so from Parkside, Thurrock’s old ground lies dormant, but has a big price tag attached to it. That would be a ground, but it wouldn’t be Grays. Neither would any possible tie-up with Tilbury. And there’s ongoing talk of a site on the north side of the town.

In the Grays programme, the club revealed its projected financial position and the reality of being a community-owned non-league club. Such transparency is refreshing at this level, although it also serves to underline the challenge of running a club – Grays have an expected gap between income and expenditure of around £ 500 per week. That runs in at £ 20,000 for a season – it is not difficult to see how clubs can find themselves, over a period of a few years, in difficulties, unless they are bailed-out or propped-up by individuals. Against this financial backdrop, Step 4 is something of an achievement in itself, let alone promotion.

It’s clear to see there’s frustrations at Grays, they’ve not been dealt a particularly good hand of cards and they’re in a borough that has got more than one football club – it is difficult for Thurrock to show support for any one club. However, this is a football institution with a long history and it represents the largest town in Thurrock, where a lot of football-loving, working class people still live. I’ve got a soft spot for the Blues as it was the club that introduced non-league football to me, and what’s more, I was born and raised in the area. It saddens me to see a club like Grays continually worry about their prospects. Once the people that hold it together start to drift away or become disillusioned, then the real problems begin. I sincerely hope that never happens and that by the time I next visit GA, there’s more positive news on the horizon.

The Non-League 100: Enfield 1967-70

Soccer - FA Amateur Cup Final - Enfield v Skelmersdale United - Wembley Stadium
Enfield v Skelmersdale, FA Amateur Cup 1967 at Wembley. Photo: PA

UNTIL the last 20 years or so, Enfield were a huge name in the non-league game, from their triumphs in amateur football through to the club’s Conference years. The demise of a once great institution is as complex as it is sad, but Enfield made their name in the days before players were paid to play.

In the late 1960s, Enfield were an outstanding team, packed with internationals and habitually lifting trophies. They were Isthmian League champions between 1967-68 and 1969-70 and won the FA Amateur Cup twice, in 1966-67 and 1969-70.

From their election to the Isthmian League in 1963 to 1970-71, Enfield never finished outside the top four. They played an exciting brand of football that yielded 100-plus goals in two of their trio of title wins, but they were also formidable in defence, conceding less than 30 goals per season.

In 1966-67, Enfield reached their second FA Amateur Cup final, three years after they were beaten by Crook Town in the showpiece at Wembley. Enfield had won past a trio of big names from the south on the way to the final – Sutton United, Leytonstone and Walthamstow Avenue. But they also beat Highgate United in a game that had to replayed due to the first meeting being abandoned after lightning had struck a number of players. Tragically, Highgate’s Tony Allden died in the incident. The replay, at Villa Park, attracted  more than 30,000 people and Enfield won 6-0.

The final at Wembley drew a crowd of 75,000 and ended goalless, but Enfield beat Skelmersdale United 3-0 in the replay at Maine Road. Midfielder Ray Hill scored twice and Irish international John Connell netted the other goal.

This victory acted as a springboard for further success as Enfield’s cemented their position as amateur football’s top team. In 1967-68, they were Isthmian League champions for the first time, finishing five points clear of Sutton and remaining unbeaten at home in the league campaign.

Despite the threat posed by Hitchin Town, Enfield retained their title in 1968-69, finishing five points ahead of the Hertfordshire club. A year later, they won the Isthmian again, but this time, the championship race was a tight affair. Enfield edged out Wycombe Wanderers by just a single point, but won three out of four points of their nearest rivals, including a 2-1 win at Wycombe’s Loakes Park.

Enfield also won through to another FA Amateur Cup final, beating old foes Skelmersdale in the semi-final, thanks to a goal by Peter Feely, who would go on to play briefly for Chelsea. They then beat Dagenham in the final at Wembley by 5-1 with goals from Feely, Connell (2), Joe Adams and an own goal.

This Enfield side was brimming with talent: In goal was school teacher Ian Wolstenholme;at the back was George Clayton (a Cambridge graduate), Phil Fry, banker Paddy Betson and John Payne, with veteran Alf A’Arcy also featuring in defence; midfield comprised players like Joe Adams, Ray Hill and Roger Day; and up front, Enfield could call on the charismatic and influential Tommy Lawrence, John Connell and Peter Feely. During 1969-70, Fry, Day, Gray, Payne and Adams and Feely were all capped by England at amateur level. Connell was an Irish international and Lawrence and D’Arcy were capped earlier in their careers by England. The team was full of top names that were well known across the amateur football circuit.

Today there are two clubs bearing the Enfield name. It is doubtful they will ever touch the heights that the old club achieved in a colourful history.