As the Premier League season draws to a close, I for one will not be watching the final day of the campaign; but rather Boston United versus Gateshead in the National League North play-offs.
From the crunching 50-50 tackles, the steaming hot chocolate and the sixty-year old lifelong grafters sending crowds of a hundred into absolute raptures, non-league football is the pinnacle of the beautiful game.
Nowadays younger supporters follow the world’s elite, the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool, when they have never experienced the delights on offer at Curzon Ashton, Bradford Park Avenue and South Shields. The one common factor between the Premier League and non-league is the average age of the crowd: In the Premier League it is 41 years old whilst it is 52 for non-league.
So why is this?
As a seventeen-year-old who currently holds a season ticket at League Two side Bradford City, I may seem hypocritical. However, when my beloved club aren’t competing on the pitch I will always, not visit a bumper crowd of forty thousand, but rather a crowd of under a hundred at the likes of Gateshead, Bradford Park Avenue or Farsley Celtic. The ticketing money that these clubs will recieve as income from supporters, like myself, could help keep their head above the murky water that is financial collapse (rest in peace Bury FC).
Now more than ever, following the coronavirus pandemic, non-league clubs across the country are pleading to their fanbase to provide sufficient funds in a desperate attempt to not dissolve into history, but rather to create a brighter future. The ticketing prices at Premier League clubs is extortionate, with Arsenal charging £97 for an adult ticket whilst Brighouse Town charge just £8; which would you rather pay for ninety minutes of football, to help keep your local club alive or help contribute to the wages of football’s millionaires?
Whilst the Premier League does boast the startling quality that is Sergio Aguero or Sadio Mane, it also consists of the likes of Jamie Vardy or even Joe Hart, two players who began their career in the depths of non-league football and rose to the spotlight even representing their country. It seems perplexing why the younger generation of football’s future are following the nonpareil of English football and disagree with the aspect of playing below the EFL.
Yes, admittedly the overall ability at non-league level can be appalling and hard to watch, it does not match the technical gift that is available at the top of the English pyramid, but that’s the joy of it. Currently, the Premier League is an hour and a half of passing the ball across the back four before being dispossessed and having to defend against a mediocre attack from admittedly, a very talented opposition who don’t even need to try to get the crowd off their feet.
But in the depths of football, fans can laugh and actually enjoy when the local pub worker receives the ball at the back, and either hoofs it up to the taunting of the fans or does a short pass which bobbles over his team-mates foot and is welcomed by the resistance, who are never much better.
Premier League stalwart Jamie Vardy, who once featured for Stocksbridge Park Steels and Halifax Town, even backed up this point, stating: “I wasn’t the biggest lad. centre-halves in non-league are big, stocky and just look at you, being small, and think ‘Right, we’re just going to kick him’. But I kind of enjoyed that side of it.”
However, in defence of the Premier League it has adapted and adjusted to overcome some of the biggest leagues in the world, with players now preferring to play in England rather than the likes of Italy or France, and let’s be honest; it’s not because of the weather. The money, devoted fan base and coverage of the Premier League attracts some of the biggest names in the world, which actually helps the quality of non-league football. With foreign players being signed to a club’s academies, the spread of young English talent has depleted as teams have a wider scouting system now to sniff the most adroit prospects in football.
This causes the likes of Morgan Ferrier, James Hardy and Joe Ward to be released by their respective clubs and rebuild their careers below England’s fourth tier, and all have done, now battling once again in the EFL. In this matter, the Prem has certainly helped to ameliorate the amusement available in non-league, whilst also making their aptness superior.
In fact, this is why just 113 different English players have appeared in the Premier League this season, compared to a whopping 348 foreigners, but ask any West Ham United fan right now, and they will most likely agree that Declan Rice is their favoured player, a local Englishman who has travelled through the youth system and prospered at the top level of football, what’s not to love? Like it or not, fans adore a local talent excelling in the first team, but it continues to fade and make the football less enjoyable, which seems harsh as the Premier League is admittedly the best league in the world, but it’s as if it has betrayed its values.
I have also witnessed all three main categories of English football, non-league, the EFL and the Premier League having witnessed a Manchester United game a few years ago, however I have never returned to Old Trafford or any Premier League stadium as the vibes and atmosphere surrounding it didn’t quite entice me as much as I had hoped, it’s a less friendly and more anonymous ambience as I feel as in non-league due to the more compact and smaller crowds I could quite easily interact or debate with a fan or even a player heaven forbid, but in the Premier League despite the larger crowds, you somehow feel more alienated and excluded from the beautiful game.
So, going forward, what needs to change? How do we, as a unified community, help these non-league clubs to survive compared to the financial giants who currently reign across the Premier League? Instead of paying the £80+ pounds to visit a Premier League side, maybe consider a local visit to your closest non-league side, enjoy the cheap, yet perfect beverages on offer, the warm, friendly faces surrounding you and of course, the absolutely thrilling and comedic football which is available for prices that jibe the Premier League and prove that non-league truly is the pinnacle of the beautiful game.
What are your thoughts on non-league football and should it get more attention? Comment below!
Featured Image Credit – The Non-League Football Paper