East Anglians at play on Non-League Day

You know you’re heading east when you look out of the train window and the fields are peat dirty black and the landscape as flat as the pre-Columbus world. East Anglia is one of Britain’s larders and the harvest has already been bagged – on the menu is the FA Vase first qualifying round tie between Thetford Town and Ely City.

P1050080 (800x531)It’s a local derby, just 28 miles between the two places and two stops on the train. Although Ely, in Cambridgeshire, is a city, its population is 20,000 and just a shade smaller than Norfolk’s Thetford, which is a town. The difference? A gargantuan cathedral that you can see for miles. From the top of Ely Cathedral who can probably see Thetford!

Głupi chłopak (Stupid Boy)

Thetford’s football team goes unnoticed in a town that is famous for being the filming location of BBC TV’s legendary sit-com, Dad’s Army. I expected to see khaki on every corner, but it’s not that easy to find, although the museum dedicated to the series is popular and there’s a rather charming statue of a seated Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) by the river. What’s more noticeable is that many of the voices you hear are not from Norfolk, but more likely from the streets of Warsaw, Riga or Porto.

Thetford has a sizeable population of Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Portuguese, most of whom work on the land and the processes around it. I spoke to a number of local people to find out just why this part of England has attracted so many Eastern Europeans. It’s a touchy subject and if you dig too deep, you could get to sound a little like the Daily Mail. You expect multi-cultural populations in the cities, but when you see it in a relatively sleepy, agricultural region, it seems slightly surreal. About 25 years ago, I recall a photo-journalism feature on the Fens by The Independent, describing it as “Britain’s Ukraine”. How prophetic those words seem now!

Needless to say, the football club does not greatly benefit from the influx of foreign workers, although one player, Bruno Tavares, is from Portugal.

P1050074Upside potential

While Thetford have started the season quite well – three league wins in four games – Ely are in deep trouble already. They’ve played seven league and cup games and have lost the lot. Apparently, their last couple of Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties Premier performances have been more encouraging. Last season, Thetford finished 16th and Ely 17th in the table, so there’s plenty of scope for improvement in 2014-15.

Crowds at Thetford’s Recreation Ground are consistent. Last season, they averaged 71 and the year before it was 66. This season, they have dropped to around 60, but it is early days. On August 30, when Thetford played host to Norwich United in the FA Cup, they drew 131 to Mundford Road.

They were not flocking to the club for this FA Vase tie. The club seemed genuinely pleased to see anyone coming through the gate, where a couple of “salt of the earth” characters welcomed me. Although the facilities are fairly rudimentary, they meet the need of a club that could be getting better support. Perhaps a couple of Polish or Latvian players would conjure up some backing from the town’s imported workforce?

James Dean…so hungry and so lean

So there he was, blond, slightly bearded and Maradona-thighed. James Dean – the rebel with a cause. The Thetford programme said that he was still trying to make his mark at Eastern Counties Premier level after scoring 51 goals for Bridgham of the Central & South Norfolk League.

P1050089“Deano’s going to get a hat-trick today,” said one Thetford supporter. He went close. In the eighth minute, he gave his side the lead when Ollie Standly’s cross ricocheted across the area and he fired the ball home first time. A poacher’s goal.

Four minutes later, he did it again, sliding the ball into the net after Ryan Pearson cut inside and rolled the ball in Dean’s path.

Ely, a team that has become accustomed to losing, were surely finished already? Not so, for they showed some spirit and in the 30th minute, Sam Goodge, who looked a decent player, took advantage of a defensive slip and drilled the ball past Scott Cruickshank. 2-1.

By the interval, Thetford had lost their flow and Ely were gaining the upper hand. But they were hampered by their goalkeeper, Jack Johnson, who was too fond of trying to prove he could play football – he couldn’t – and was often caught in possession or unable to handle the ball well. At the other end, Cruickshank also looked vulnerable. I had scarcely seen a game where both keepers were so unsure of themselves.

Dean almost grabbed a first-half hat-trick when he headed wide at the near post from another Pearson cross.

The second half was an anti-climax, but Thetford skipper Ashley Thompson hit an upright with a header. And young Standly should have done much better when he was sent clear by Pearson, rounded the goalkeeper and then had a near Ronnie Rosenthal moment when his shot hit the side-netting. As Captain Mainwaring would have said, “Stupid boy.”

Thetford hung on to win 2-1. It wasn’t a classic, but in a game with two Step 5 teams, if you expected much more, you would be “entering the realms of fantasy” – another nugget from the good Captain. Honest stuff it was, and next week, Thetford and Ely meet again, in the shadows of that cathedral.

Stagger the weekend and non-league could benefit

P1040205The recent announcement that Non-League Day will take place on September 6, 2014 is a reminder that the grass roots game can prosper when the emphasis is off the Premier for a weekend. Attendances around the non-league circuit have certainly been boosted on Non-League Day since it began a few years ago, although I sense that 2013 was a lot more low profile.

It does beg the question whether a better scheduling of football over a regular weekend might reap rewards for non-league clubs.

In some European countries, they stagger the top games across Friday to Monday in order to give the lesser teams a chance to draw a crowd. It is a practice that could be useful in Britain.

For example, why not have all Premier and Championship games on Friday or Saturday, with the odd Monday game, freeing-up Sunday for non-league football. And then have kick-offs at midday, giving fans the chance to enjoy a pint after the game? Alternatively, make Sunday Premier day, leaving Saturday open for non-league fixtures.

Inevitably, there will be complaints that “Saturday is football day”, but with non-league competing alongside big-time football, smaller clubs don’t really have the chance to pick-up the neutral fan who might want to see a game on the day his favourite club is not playing.

It could look something like this:

Friday night: Championship
Saturday lunchtime: Non-League lower levels (Step 3 onwards)+
Saturday 2pm: Championship/League 1 and 2
Saturday late afternoon: Non-League Step 1 and 2
Saturday night: Premier
Sunday lunchtime/early afternoon: Non-League
Sunday late afternoon: Premier
Monday: Premier

+Could alleviate the need for floodlights

There’s good reason to suggest a change in approach. Step 3 of the non-league pyramid, arguably the level that epitomises football at small town level, has been attracting smaller crowds for some years.

But there’s some good news. Attendances in 2013-14 for Step 3 showed an encouraging increase to an average of 360. This was a near 7% increase on 2012-13. They haven’t topped 400 since 2008-09, falling to as low as 336 in 2013. Before the creation of the regional conferences, teams from this level averaged 475 at the gate.

Blue Square North and South averaged 540 per game in 2013-14, almost the same as 2012-13 but significantly down on 2011-12 when gates hit 600-plus. The Blue Square Premier, however, averaged almost 1,900 per game, unchanged from 2012-13. Step 4 averaged 167 in 2013-14, marginally up on the previous campaign.

Of course there are many permutations that could be used to achieve a more considered approach, one that is synchronised across the leagues. More flexibility would ease up the deluge of Saturday 3pm matches, and might give the lower levels a better chance of tapping into their local audience. What’s more that curious breed, the Groundhopper, would love it!