Graphic: Non-League Day 2012 - our writers spell out why they love non-league
08:59 12 October 2012
Archant © 2012
To mark national Non-League Day 2012 our writers spell out why they love grassroots football.
Whilst non-league football may not have the speed or skill levels of the Premier League it has so much to offer the football fan on a limited budget.
For a few quid or for nothing there is always a game worth going to, usually without having to travel too far from your doorstep.
It’s football in the raw, the players are out there because they want to be, playing mainly for the love of the game rather than the few quid some of them are lucky to pick up.
Added to which you can always find someone to have a chat with or find space to spend some time on your own contemplating the finer aspects of the game of your choice.
The players and management teams are often approachable and much more welcoming than there more senior brethren, and non-league grounds are often a lot more quirky and interesting than the modern stadia in the professional game, in fact it’s safe to say every ground has it’s own story and it can be fun rooting them out.
My love of non-league started at Crown Meadow but now encompasses most of Norfolk and North Suffolk and if the game is right sometimes further afield and Friday evening or Saturday morning will often find me perusing the fixture list for an attractive contest.
On a weekly basis, it is non-league action that proves exactly why football is the national sport.
From the reams of volunteers helping to make their club tick over, to the squad players on hand to give up their free time in the hope of getting a few minutes on the pitch.
Then there are the players, ranging from youngsters hoping to tread an unconventional path to the very top of the game, to the grizzly veterans continuing to churn out appearances and commanding performances without the need for a full-on training regime – they are all there, doing their bit.
The non-league game is not only the grassroots – it is the foundation; the reason why the sport is so popular across these isles.
And every game, whether on a park pitch or at places like The Walks and Crown Meadow, offers commitment, skill, hopes and a genuine connection with those taking the time to watch.
The game and the talking points are usually the same – but non-league football is on a completely different level to the professional game. And in many ways, it’s better for it.
Despite being a lifelong Norwich City fan, much of my youth was spent on the terraces of Brewers Green Lane, rather than Carrow Road.
Much to my disappointment I wasn’t allowed a Norwich season ticket until I reached the grand old age of 16.
But it mattered little because a bunch of friends and I would head down to Diss Town (using whichever willing parent we could find) to watch our heroes in action.
As far as Diss were concerned this was a great time to watch the club. As proper non-league fanatics will know, Bill Punton’s Army were on their way to Wembley - from where they brought back the FA Vase.
It was from travelling up and down the country watching that successful team in action that a lifelong love of non-league football was born.
But what makes it so appealing?
Firstly you get up close and personal to the action - often in good ways and bad. I’ll never forget the game where a former Norwich star, managing a non-league club, was taken to task over his foul language, to which his response was to shout a four-letter expletive back across the park. I’m sure he’ll know who he is.
The players are (and in the main seem) down-to-earth, real people. They’ll talk to you before taking a throw, have a laugh before they send over the corner.
This means you buy into their dreams when the club manages to punch above their weight, as Dereham found out this week.
And you know what? The football isn’t bad either.
I’m a lifelong Norwich City fan and long-time Carrow Road season ticket holder and love watching the Canaries – even when they are doing badly.
But I am also a huge supporter of non-league football – and hope there will be massive backing for the Non League Day today.
Over the last two weeks or so I have been really fortunate to have gor heavily involved in Dereham Town’s FA Cup adventure.
It sadly came to an end on Wednesday night in Surrey – but not before the Magpies gave it everything they had and were a huge credit to the club, town and county.
Those lads – like thousands of others in non-league football – have day jobs.
On Wednesday they had to swing time off to get down to Surrey. It was the early hours before they were back in Mid Norfolk – and then it was back in after a short period of shut eye.
Yes a lot of players get reasonable pay from the bigger clubs, but I am impressed by the commitment and passion they show.
Watching non-league football means you can get really close to the action and it is very real and gritty.
I’d urge people to support their local team – and I’d thoroughly recommend Aldiss Park in Dereham today for the FA Vase match against S and L Corby.
Come On You Magpies!
Why, someone asked, would you want to watch non league football?
He had a point: you are likely to come home with clothing infused with the odours of the nearby hot dog stall. If you are of a certain age you might be lucky to get a seat at some places. You might also get very wet.
Almost certainly you will be able to park your car, most likely for free. And without a long walk to the ground. It will cost you around 10pc of the price of a ticket at a top-flight game. The food and drink will cost less. Your won’t be rubbing knees or elbows with the stranger next to you. You might actually know him or her.
If you want to talk about the weather, Fred’s wheat crop, the wife’s plans for next year’s holiday, or the price of milk, no one will accuse you of being a plastic fan. You can move if you need want to. If it’s rubbish you can leave before the end and no one will moan at you.
I have done most of the above, quite often while watching Wisbech Town.
It has been a pleasure, an education, exciting, boring, dull, awful, brilliant, but perhaps as much as anything, it has been just as passionate as watching highly-paid professionals go about their business. Maybe more so. Watching someone play for the club which represents his home town is rather different to watching someone paid to play for any club of his choosing. Not all local teams are represented by local players, but the physical and emotional proximity of player to fan means both can breathe in every drop of local pride and passion.
I don’t necessarily get that watching Premier League. The football is better and I do enjoy home comforts, but there is something special about the grassroots game, because the lack of £70,000 a week quality is made up by the sheer passion of those who play for beer tokens or the congratulatory beer proferred by a regular fan in the public bar afterwards.
Local football is a working class game played by working class footballers for working class people. Like me.
Support non league day. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Some of my first memories involve kicking a football about with my older brother on our village playing field as Dad kicked people on the pitch.
Mum would watch Dad while brother and I would be part of a three, four or five-a-side match behind the goal.
We’d all wait for the half-time whistle because it meant you could have a few precious moments scoring in the big-sized goal.
As I grew older, as is the case with so many kids, I realised that my dream to be a professional footballer would never be realised.
So the next best thing for me was to replicate what Dad did. I played my first game for the village reserves’ side when I was 13 and was in the first team a couple of years later.
And I loved it. Coming back home on a Saturday caked in mud; on a high if we’d won, peed off if we’d lost.
And I suffered from butterflies before every game. My cousin, a much better player than me and older, wisely once said: “Butterflies are a good thing, they show you care. Once you stop getting them then stop playing football.”
He was absolutely right. This was village football but it mattered to me and played a massive part in my life. The butterflies disappeared when I was about 28. I gave up and have never regretted it.
It is the bedrock of British football - where fans can cheer on their idols from close quarters, before mixing with them over a pint after the game.
The non-league family’s love for football is unquestionable.
From playing in muddy, monsoon conditions up north to reporting on Lowestoft Town as they trained in incessant rain in Wrexham in preparation for an FA Cup tie…getting changed in a ramshackle wooden hut with no heating and even watching one match be halted as a horse ran on the pitch, my involvement and love of non-league football has never waned.
There are many, many reasons to love non-league and local football.
The pre-match banter, smell of linament oils wafting round the changing rooms….what is clear is that you won’t be witnessing any blatant Suarez-esque diving or racism on grounds around Norfolk and Suffolk. And reporting wise you won’t have to wait an eternity for an interview - with players and officials at clubs around the region more accessible than any of their top-flight counterparts.
The camaderie among players, craic among management and fans and even being able to question (or is that abuse?) the assistant referee from just a few feet away… this is what sets aside non-league football from the big boys.
And with no top flight and Championship football this coming Saturday, as England play on Friday, what better way for football followers across the region to turn-out and witness some grassroots entertainment by taking in a non-league match on Saturday - you won’t be left sick as a parrot!