More crowd tension for non-league football?

MOST non-league clubs are quite friendly places, very few have fans that carry an air of menace with them. At many stadiums, the atmosphere is sleepy, welcoming and sedate. That’s not to say some clubs could do with a more youthful demographic to liven up the place, but nobody wants supporters who fancy a punch-up.

Alcohol has a lot to do with it – it always has – but there’s also an element of beligerance about some fans not normally associated with the non-league game.

Banbury United was always a decent ground to visit, a peculiar stadium close to the railway station in a prime spot. Little wonder that property developers have always liked the look of it. Banbury were never particularly well supported, 10 years ago they averaged less then 300 people for their home games. But something has changed in their little corner of Oxon. Not only have they run away with the Southern League Central Premier, they have also attracted more fans. With more people comes the potential of more troublesome individuals being among the crowd. At some Banbury games this season, there have been some problems, including an artificial pitch being damaged by a flare.

When Banbury arrived in Hitchin for their game on April 16, there was a police van parked outside Top Field, an image more in keeping with the miners’ strike in the 1980s. There was also a plethora of high-vis clad stewards, more than usual at Hitchin games. Interestingly, while the Banbury numbers were modest, they made plenty of noise, the script not always in keeping with the sort of family environment Hitchin have been encouraging.

Just after half-time, the peace was broken, but it was not entirely the fault of Banbury’s travelling support. Indeed, there were about a dozen Luton Town fans at Top Field who decided they wanted to antagonise the Banbury crew. There was some ritualistic throwing of beer, lots of pointing, aggressive posturing and a few blows were exchanged. The high-vis team swung into action and police arrived on time to disperse the problem, ejecting the Luton fans from the ground. Hitchin’s chairman and his matchday staff did well to quell the problem.

Non-league needs more fans, but the question is, where will they come from? The game at this level needs younger customers, but clubs may have to get used to more energy, aggression and the occasional fracas.

One of the comments I have often heard from young people is that non-league football is passionless, lacks a certain atmosphere and is a game for older people who don’t want to go to Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs. To a certain degree this is true, because it is the crowd that makes the stadium experience at a higher level. The noise, emotion and passion is fuelled by the people watching the game. A stadium doesn’t have an atmosphere with no people, no matter how people try and romanticise the vision of floodlights towering over empty stands. Therefore, more people means a more intoxicating atmosphere. For all the discomfort created by those Banbury fans, a big percentage of the near-600 crowd at Top Field were watching the situation as if it was something of a spectacle. It’s rather like the Atlético Madrid-Manchester City game, everyone was complaining about the antics of the home team, but they could not help but rubber-neck the action.

I am not advocating Football Factory-type scenes in the Southern League, but it could certainly do with a little more passion, singing and influence from the terraces at the majority of grounds. What it doesn’t need is needless scrapping and foul-mouthed day trippers who are not really non-league fans. There’s a big seam of disenfranchised football fans out there, non-league has to make sure it draws the right type of follower, but it also ensure it encourages rather than deters. It’s a bit of a challenge.

Stevenage and Oldham live up to their billing

IN THE scheme of things, the battle to stay in the Football League is relatively unimportant compared to other events around the world, but an air of definite tension hung over Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium on the day the 90th and 91st-placed teams met in what could only be labelled an elimination bout.

It had reached a crucial stage of 2021-22 for both teams, who seemed hell bent on falling through the trapdoor. Oldham may beaten Leyton Orient a few days earlier and Stevenage might have be hoping for a late boost from the appointment of their third manager of the campaign, but both seemed in freefall. That Oldham – who also changed their coach in January, John Sheridan replacing Keith Curle – were still in with a shout was partly due to the poor form and slump of Stevenage, but the relegation battle had crystallised into any one of three to accompany Scunthorpe United. Barrow, who only returned to the league after a long absence in 2020, have evolved into candidates for a National League return.

Relegation for Stevenage would be a bitter pill to swallow after 12 years in the EFL. They’ve had some great moments in that period, winning promotion to League One in their first season and enjoying cup ties against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton and Swansea City, among others. They ended their non-league life with two FA Trophy victories in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2010. It’s a town that’s always been tailor-made for league football, but since relegation back to League Two, support looks to have plateaued and in 2021-22, gates had been 5% lower than before the pandemic.

Phil Wallace has owned the club since the late 1990s and provided the impetus to take Stevenage into the league, the most recent improvement to the excellent Lamex Stadium being the North Stand, which offers a superb view for spectators. From time to time there are rumours Wallace wants to sell Stevenage and there were suggestions of a tie-up between the club and a group of cryptocurrency investors in 2021.

Wallace, allegedly the 35th richest person in Hertfordshire, would surely not want to end his reign at Stevenage with relegation, but the club’s on-pitch performances have declined in recent years and the manager’s role has become one of the least secure in football – they have had 10 full-time appointments in 12 years, hardly a recipe for stability.

Oldham Athletic were in the first Premier League in 1992-93 and spent two seasons at that level before falling into the second (1994) and third (1997) tiers. In 2018, they were relegated to League Two and have finished in 19th and 18th in the last seasons respectively. Just ahead of visiting Stevenage, Oldham published their accounts and they didn’t make for good reading. Football finance guru Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football, suggested the latest figures showed the club is “technically insolvent” as it has more liabilities than assets. 

However, Maguire added there is no sign of the club going into administration, but the accounts demonstrated a hand-to-mouth existence. Oldham, like many clubs, owe a lot of money, so relegation from the EFL would surely be a blow to their financial position.

Oldham fans turned out in force at Stevenage and their vocal support was very impressive. Conversely, there was an air of despondency among the home fans, who had not seen their team win since a league game the end of January. Their last away victory was recorded on August 14 at Bristol Rovers. Oldham had just ended a run of six consecutive league defeats when they beat Leyton Orient on March 29. Their home form has really been their undoing and their recent run included three successive defeats at Boundary Park. 

The general feeling was the losers of the game at the Lamex may well be heading into non-league football. Time was certainly running out for both, but Stevenage appeared to have the easier run-in, with games against Rochdale, Colchester, Scunthorpe and Carlisle. Stevenage’s biggest problem was scoring goals, just 34 in the 38 games before the Oldham clash and just six in the last 10.

With so much at stake, it was no surprise tension got the better of things for long periods. Stevenage had two early efforts, but their finishing explained why they had found scoring such a chore. Luke Norris and Arthur Read should certainly have done better when presented with close range opportunities. 

Oldham took the lead after 16 minutes with a nicely taken goal. Jordan Clarke’s cross to the far post was met by a looping header from Jamie Hopcutt, who had been recalled to the team by Sheridan. The Oldham keeper, Danny Rogers, danced with joy as the ball sailed over Christy Pym, his opposite number.

Stevenage nervously pressed, but their lack of firepower was exposed repeatedly, notably in the frenetic finale which almost brought the equaliser. Oldham’s defence held out, frustrating the home team and their unhappy supporters. It was a great rearguard action, although it didn’t make for compelling entertainment. It didn’t really matter to the majority of the fans, the result was the most important aspect of the afternoon, and Oldham got precisely what they came for. While the Latics travelling support enjoyed the moment as if they had won major silverware, the noise from the long Stevenage terrace was akin to mumbled jeering.

It is possible both of these teams will avoid relegation, but at present, Stevenage are in the drop zone. The situation will change game-by-game, but Oldham’s win, however ugly, has given them a three-point lead over Stevenage. They also have a better goal difference, which is worth another point. And then there’s Barrow, who are level with Oldham and have an eight-goal advantage. Stevenage manager Steve Evans, who felt his side were outstanding (!), is calling for the backing of the entire new town. They travel to Colchester United on April 9, who are also far from safe. As Evans said, Stevenage have seven cup finals ahead of them. He’s not wrong.

Remaining fixtures

Barrow 
(7): Home – Forest Green, Northampton, Sutton United.
Away – Crawley, Exeter, Salford, Swindon.

Oldham (6): Home – Crawley, Northampton, Salford.
Away – Forest Green, Port Vale, Tranmere.

Stevenage (7): Home – Rochdale, Salford, Tranmere.
Away – Carlisle, Colchester, Mansfield, Scunthorpe.