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.

The mystery of rising attendances at a non-league club

FOR AROUND 30 years, Hitchin Town’s attendances were remarkably consistent, rarely wavering from 350-400 people, sometimes dropping a little when things were not going so well on the pitch. The club’s image was one of an austere place where middle-aged men got their regular dose of live football, some occupying the same spot on the terrace or in the stand for many years. The fans were loyal, but ageing by the season. The crumbling wooden terracing, rusting corrugated metal and damp fibre board fencing did not entice younger fans. The perception was very much Top Field as a museum piece full of old boys.

Success has never been consistent at Hitchin, but since 2018, when the Canaries reached the first round of the FA Cup, the club has undergone something of a transformation off the pitch. On the field, the football has deteriorated but this doesn’t seem to have affected the mood of the club. Far from it, in fact, for the enthusiasm for the club seems to be on the rise in the market town of Hitchin.

It may just have something to do with economics, for Hitchin has become an upwardly mobile town where smashed advocado is consumed in the many – too many – cafes and bars and coffee (the new tin of beans barometer for the price of goods) can cost as much as £ 4 for a latte. House prices have become unrealistic and young people are being driven out of their home town, rather like nearby St. Albans. Hitchin has, since the 1980s, always been a dormitory town, but the pandemic has driven disposable income back into the local economy.

Part of that could well be a shift into supporting local entities such as a football club. More than ever, people are realising that attending matches at Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham, among others, is a pastime of the wealthy and well-heeled. Taking a family to the Emirates is almost like splashing out on a budget-price holiday. The pandemic and the lack of spectator-permitted football may have got some people out of the habit. How many people feel comfortable being in a 60,000 crowd anymore or squeezing onto public transport?

This may have diverted football fans away from £ 50 tickets to the more manageable and accessible non-league game. Admittedly, the quality of football leaves a lot to be desired, but then how many times have we come away from a major stadium event disappointed? 

Hitchin Town’s attendances are quite unexplainable, averaging 480 this season for league games, despite their form. Interestingly, the impressive figures have come in 2022, where the average is well over 500. Even Monday night matches have attracted decent crowds.

One reason could be the growing interest in the club among younger people. The demographics have certainly changed, boosted by a more inclusive attitude at the club. In the past, the club hosted special days for the armed forces/services (part of the game’s obsession with the military) and women, but this has broadened to include a rainbow laces day which shows a definite transformation of mindset. Demonstrating this level of awareness is very good to attract younger audiences and marks any club as being modern, forward-thinking and keen to embrace all sectors of the community. Non-league football has long needed more women to ensure there’s less testosterone around and the influence of people like Kate Dellar, whose tireless energy has been very influential, is very evident. Not sure about the plethora of dogs at matches, but then my idea of a decent canine is a Dachshund, any thing bigger just gets in the way.

Hitchin Town is virtually unrecognisable from the club of the 1990s and early 2000s and this bodes well for the future. If the club can attract such attendances when the team is struggling, then even moderate success could be rewarded with four figure crowds. At the special “pay what you want” game against Rushall Olympic (a much-needed 2-0 win to ease relegation worries), there were over 600 people present. This does make you wonder what lower admission prices might deliver – at present, non-league football is still too expensive at some clubs and the success of flexible entrance fees shows that other people think that way too.

When two worlds collide: Premier meets non-league

TRYING to attract more supporters via marketing initiatives is a worthwhile exercise for non-league clubs. Projects like Non-League Day and reduced admission for certain games have their place and have proved very fruitful in most cases. Indeed, their success does raise questions around the pricing structure for football outside of the Football League. If non-league was cheaper, more people would surely attend games. 

Coalville from the Southern League launched a £ 5 admission day when they met Hitchin Town on February 5. The response was particularly good, Coalville had an excellent crowd of over 800, with only a dozen or so coming from Hertfordshire. Football for a fiver had clearly appealed to a lot of local folk.

However, while filling the ground and creating a buzz, Coalville drew a lot of fans who were unaccustomed to non-league football. It was very noticeable these spectators really did not understand the attraction of the game at this level for those that attend regularly. 

Non-league, generally, is a more sedate affair, there is a good natured atmosphere at the majority of grounds and civility tends to dominate. This seemed lost on the horde of fans who concentrated on foul-mouthed abuse of the Hitchin team and the gaggle of supporters who travelled up to Leicestershire. To be honest, the language was worse than any Football League/Premier League ground I have visited in the past few years. 

Clearly, they were not Coalville fans, for their chanting also included “We hate Forest”, which implied they may well have been Leicester City fans. Nottingham Forest were hosting Leicester the following day in the FA Cup. It is doubtful they were fans of Coalville, because Forest do not move in their immediate circle of clubs!

The Hitchin fans were a little intimidated and their expressions told the locals they were not impressed. “If you don’t like it, f*** off to the way end,” said one fan. Again, this comment only served to confirm the influx was largely unused to the non-league system, where fans change ends to stand behind the goal their team is attacking.

Meanwhile, the high-vis gang who were stewarding the game just stood and watched as abuse poured from the terrace. What is the point of employing security staff if they do nothing but grin? 

It has to be said, there were no prudes among the Hitchin contingent, but essentially, the age group is late 50s, early 60s. In other words, they were not going to trade insults with dozens of teenagers and 20-30 year-olds. They did Coalville no service, which is a great shame as the club itself was as friendly as any non-league outfit. Coalville took a bold decision to cut prices to encourage more local football fans to come along and it worked. Unfortunately, cultural differences undid them to a certain degree, even though they did get the three points.

Hitchin have had their own experience of Premier fans turning up and making a nuisance of themselves a few years ago when a gang of Everton supporters, on route to Stevenage for a FA Cup tie, barged their way into Top Field. For those who went to Coalville, they must have returned home appreciating their own club.