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.

Cashless is the future, but there must be flexibility

MY LOCAL non-league club, among others, has adopted a scheme that has not gone down well with everyone – pre-booking of match tickets online and no cash admittance on the day. Now if you’ve got a season ticket, it doesn’t really affect you until there’s a cup game, but various “legacy fans” find it an intrusion and some older supporters haven’t bought into the cashless society that’s inevitably creeping upon us year-by-year.

The covid pandemic accelerated some of these practices in the name of health and safety, but I am among those that feel it is an inappropriate process for non-league football where stadiums are only 20% filled. Attending games at some big-time clubs has long become a chore, from the scarcity of tickets to the high-vis security and narrow, electronic turnstiles that feel like pig-breeding cages at times. Non-league football was supposed to be the people’s game, an event that allowed you to stroll up and make an ad-hoc decision.

The introduction of cashless admission – no other choice than go online outside the ground to obtain entry if you do decide to attend at the last minute – is not only excluding some people, but it is deterring those that feel uncomfortable buying online on a smart phone. It is excluding a generation, if you like, in an era where clubs very visibly champion diversity and inclusiveness. A weak link in the diversity agenda has always been age.

There is another more legitimate reason why the club has taken this approach, it is because there’s a lack of volunteers, which is strange given the club’s popularity has increased and crowds are at their best level for years.

In some ways, you could argue that the cashless strategy has not harmed attendances, but as a rough guess, I would say they are missing a trick because the additional fans they could be gaining may be substantial. On the plus side, cashless also means greater accountability and less scope for fraud and gate manipulation.

That’s not to say cashless is a bad idea, because it can be very convenient when you’re travelling and judging by the number of card companies springing up that allow you to hold multiple currency accounts (I have one and it is brilliant), shows you there is a big appetite for tools that make cross-border travelling easier. Moreover, I am very happy to go out for an evening and not have to worry if I have enough cash in my wallet. In fact, I rarely use cash these days.

But many non-league clubs are always pleading poverty even though some pay players money they can ill-afford, so it seems crazy there are hurdles to gaining admission at some clubs. Can they be so choosy and dogmatic when it comes to enticing new fans to their stadium?

And new fans is exactly what clubs need if they are to hand the baton on for the next generation. At the same time, those legacy followers also need to be catered for and not dismissed with throwaway (tongue in cheek) comments like “ok, boomer”. Neither should the reluctance to accept a new system, or at least question its validity, should not be greeted with ambivalence. Change is generally good, but not all change is definitely positive. At times, it has to be asked who the changes are being designed and implemented for and whether they are suitable for the situation and the audience. Step 3 or 4 non-league certainly doesn’t need the sort of intense practices of a Premier League outfit.

Quite simply, there needs to be flexibility and clubs can actually make a little more money out of a more fluid system. In the spirit of progress, clubs wants to move people to the digital format, but one way to persuade folk to adopt it would be to offer a discount for online purchases, so maybe £ 10 online and £ 12 on the day. People might moan, but there’s good reason to support this, such as the costs of manning turnstiles. The convenience of online means that it should be cheaper, but if you want to turn-up on the day, you can. It will just cost a little more.

Non-league football is a sector of the game that should be relatively simple to navigate, that should also benefit from days when big-time football is having a day off or when postponements decimate the programme. In order to do that, it needs to make accessibility easier and more welcoming for those that are unused to its culture. It is supposed to be the ultimate fan-friendly experience, not an exercise in bureaucracy.