A world away from innovative multi-use stadiums with glass facade arches, virtual reality suites and LED signage are football grounds where you can switch ends at half-time to continue your amusing banter with the opposition goalkeeper, stand alongside and converse with rival fans and engage in a deliberation with your manager over his new counterpressing tactic after the match in the clubhouse. Who wouldn’t want the chance to engage in a tête-à-tête with kindred supporters whilst drinking a nice cup of bovril and tick off a list of all the dilapidated grounds you have visited throughout the country. Here is a world of football where you can eavesdrop on managers bellowing out tactics and changes of formations, listen to the amazing humour and wit of local fans, understand clearly referee and player interaction and if you stand by the dugouts you can feel and experience the stress and pressure of being a football manager. This is all part of the experience of watching non-league football.
When my 4-year old son recently shared with me the heartbreaking news that he now wants to support Manchester City, I decided this was the time for radical action and this was the season to acquaint him with the world of non-league football. As with many of my friends, I was becoming disillusioned with the cost of watching the EPL and the Championship, the tedious car journeys and traffic jams, the focus on marketing of the major clubs especially in the EPL and the inflated transfer fees. There is nothing better than watching EPL and Champions League and I spend hours reading up on Gegenpressing, false 9’s and the genius that is Julian Nagelsmann but I decided that I wanted something different on a Saturday afternoon.
With local clubs such as Kingstonian, Leatherhead, Merstham and Dorking Wanderers all within touching distance, I was emphatic that they would be my journey into non-league football and I would write a blog including tactical analysis of each match. Is there a more desirable way to spend an afternoon or evening then watching Dorking Wanderers at Westhumble with Box Hill in the background or Merstham FC at Moatside whilst my son takes advantage of the clubs outdoor play facilities by the main stand.
Watching non-league football includes seeing a mix of ex-EPL players moving downwards from top divisions such as Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky and players who will become stars of the future in league football. We now see players of the calibre of Jamie Vardy, Michail Antonio, Chris Smalling, Charlie Austin and Troy Deeney in the Premier League and previously the likes on Ian Wright and Les Ferdinand who all began careers in non-league football. Charlie Austin was a labourer whilst playing for Poole Town while Jamie Vardy went from non-league to Champions League and international football in just a few seasons.
Club managers and coaches are another reason why I love non-league football. Many top players commence their management career at lower leagues and numerous managers are performing well such as Matt Jansen and Lee Bradbury at Chorley and Havant and Waterlooville respectively. Other managers are centered on returning to the football league having lost employment at this level such as Martin Allen, Ronnie Moore and Gary Mills. Several find themselves moving from job to job at similar levels ignored by the harsh footballing world. They are without the financial resources of league football, possess players with other full-time jobs and have to deal with the day-to-day issues of fixing a leak or finding a painter for the changing rooms.
The FA Cup is special for non-league teams and the trophy has provided great memories for Sutton, Hereford, Woking and more recently Lincoln. Last season, Merstham made the FA Cup 1st Round and performed against Oxford United live on TV. These games are a lifeline for cash-strapped clubs and provide important revenue just to continue their existence. Recently I went on an FA Cup journey by going to a game every round from the Extra Preliminary Round to the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup visiting Mile Oak, Guildford City, Eastbourne Borough and Havant and Waterlooville on the way. There is no cup competion in the world like the FA Cup due to the involvement of non-league teams.
Non-league football has its romance stories. AFC Wimbledon have progressed from the Combined Counties League to Division One of the Football League achieving 5 promotions in 9 seasons and are the first club to be formed in the 21st century to achieve football league status. F.C. United of Manchester who were formed by Manchester United fans opposed to American businessman Malcolm Glazer’s takeovers are now playing in the National League North having started in the North West Counties Football League. On the contrary there are clubs such as Darlington and Stockport County who have fallen out of the football league and are now languishing in the National League North.
I have set up a blog ‘Between the Lines’ and a Twitter page – @ukbetweenlines which is starting off as a tactical analysis site of local league and FA Cup games but will become a site to promote non-league football and hopefully encourage people to watch and support their local team. My aim is to reach out to football fans to advocate the non-league and the enjoyment that is achieved through supporting your local club.
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