Did the pandemic draw people to non-league?

EASTER is a good time for local derbies and I decided to go along to see my local team, Hitchin Town, take on Royston Town. The weather was very decent, the sun was shining and the pitch looked superb. Lush. Over 800 people decided that it was a good idea to see some local football which was an excellent attendance for a step three game. 

The crowds at Hitchin have improved significantly in the past few years. For decades, they were a constant 350-400 but they have definitely gained an extra 100 or so, which in percentage terms, is impressive. I have wondered why on many occasions, because in the main, the football hasn’t been anything to write home about, apart from a couple of season when they made the play-offs. Generally, though, this level has, in my humble opinion, gone down in quality and many teams seem to comprise former academy players with little experience of senior football. They’re fitter than past players, for sure, and they act more “professional” in many ways (a good and bad thing – waving the hand to encourage a booking for example is something that non-league can do without), but there’s a lack of aggression and the art of the tackle seems lacking in many players. 

The game between Hitchin and Royston Town was pretty poor at times and resembled an end-of-season contest where the two teams had their minds on the summer. It came to life a little in the second half and the woodwork came in handy for Royston. But in added time, the home team scored an unlikely goal by Toby Syme and won 1-0. All the frustrations of the previous 90 minutes were forgotten – some even felt the game was excellent, which made me wonder if I had been somewhere else for the afternoon. It did prove that most fans don’t care what they have been watching as long as their team wins. Hitchin needed the win because their recent form has been rather lack lustre. 

Not so their crowds because there’s fresh energy at old Top Field. The pandemic seems to have spurred the Hitchin public on to watch non-league football. I can understand that because the lockdown(s) really prompted people to appreciate their locality rather than travel for their entertainment. Moreover, Hitchin have made some excellent progress in connecting with the local community and as a result, the demographic has changed slightly. Football at Top Field is no longer the property of grey-haired, Anglo-Saxon males.

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.