Graphic: Slow shoots of recovery are sprouting up at non-league clubs in Norfolk and Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
You could be forgiven for thinking that the semi-professional game in England was on its knees.
Barely a week goes by without a non-league club's chairman pleading for improved gates, managers having their budget cut or – in the worst case scenario – a team making the front pages rather than the back because of financial difficulties.
It it a problem that is thought to have begun deteriorating when the country officially slipped into recession in 2009. With football also being guilty of living beyonds its means a plethora of clubs looked set to go to the wall, or did indeed go bust.
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Some well-known professional clubs ceased to exist and our area's second biggest team, only behind now Premier League Norwich City, went with them in the shape of King's Lynn Football Club. Many, like Rushden & Diamonds and Lynn have reformed. But five years on, and with money still as tight as ever, are things as bad as they appear outside of the riches of the sport's elite? On the surface of it you would probably suggest the answer is yes. After all, the globalisation of the beautiful game and television saturation of fixtures on Sky has made living rooms become the terraces of yesteryear for many.
The success of the Canaries inevitably has seen many jumping aboard the bandwagon to support their 'local' team – rather than the side that is actually closer to their home. And clubs like Lynn and Lowestoft Town, the region's two most successful part-time outfits on all fronts, have seen their attendances fall almost year on year, especially when comparing the averages of 2009/10 to their current ones.
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While Lynn and Lowestoft's crowds appear to look less tasty than they did, there is some much lighter news. Improving Ryman Division One North teams Dereham Town and Wroxham have progressed on and off the pitch since our wallets felt the pinch. But it's in the Thurlow Nunn (Eastern Counties) League - situated at Step Five and Step Six, two and three levels below the Evo-Stik and Ryman Premier, – where the trend is really being bucked.
Nine of our clubs' gates are up on last term and six have seen improvement when comparing their current crowd-pull with five seasons ago. Admittedly successful peaks for teams like Wroxham (+34.94pc, 11/12), Thetford Town (+43.64, 11/12) and Wisbech Town (+100.85, 10/11) came during arguably their most successful years on the pitch. But it's the growth at outfits like Diss Town, Fakenham Town and Swaffham Town that should please those most who prefer the choice of watching football where they like upon entering a ground.
Thurlow Nunn secretary Nigel Spurling has his theories on the current upward trend. He feels both of the organisation's leagues are more open than ever, a 'keep it down for the kids' campaign to reduce bad language at grounds is possibly working, and a clubs' day to inspire officials to attract new fans has paid dividends.
He said: 'The clubs' day was all about improving your (a club's) circumstances. For teams at our level to not double their gates but to focus on getting one extra family to come along and have a pleasant afternoon. To enjoy a pie, or a beer in the bar, without having to fight to get served and needing to spend copious amounts to watch football. We spoke about advertising and using Twitter more. I'm not saying the event has definitely worked, but its one of a few things that could have. I'm delighted about the stats, but I won't take too much faith from figures that do not, yet, incorporate the whole season.'
Will those numbers stay up until May? Who knows. But with only Norwich for competition locally on a professional level, perhaps people are finally swapping the money-mad world of the Premier League for the relatively inexpensive delights of football's lower levels.
- Do you love non-league? Is the expensive nature of professional football driving you down the ladder? Or do you disagree that there's a bright future away from the Football League? E-mail your views to firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below
King's Lynn Town (Evo-Stik Premier) %+-
*Lynn were wound up in Dec 2009 and reformed
Lowestoft Town (Ryman Premier) %+-
Dereham Town (Ryman Division One North) %+-
Wroxham (Ryman Division One North) %+-
Gorleston (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-
Mildenhall Town (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-
Norwich United (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-
Kirkley & Pakefield (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-
Wisbech Town (UCL Premier Division) %+-
Downham Town (Thurlow Nunn Division One) %+-
March Town Utd (Thurlow Nunn Division One) %+-
Great Yarmouth Tn (Thurlow Nunn Division One) %+-
Swaffham Town (Thurlow Nunn Division One) %+-
Fakenham Town (Thurlow Nunn Division One) %+-
Thetford Town (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-
Diss Town (Thurlow Nunn Premier) %+-