Pitch Invasion’s recent series on non-league football attracted a lot of positive feedback, as we explored the strengths and weaknesses of the foundation of the English game below the Premier League and the Football League. Ian King, from the blog 200%, will be writing regularly for us on the non-league game and kicks things off by telling us what you need to know about non-league.
1. Walk Like An Egyptian — You’ll often hear non-league football in England referred to as the non-league pyramid or just the pyramid. This is, unsurprisingly, because it’s arranged into a pyramid shape with the national Blue Square Premier (renamed for sponsorships reasons, formerly the Conference National) at the top, down to the County Leagues at the bottom. It fans out like this because crowds generally get smaller as you go down through the leagues, from the 4,500-odd that turn out to see the likes of Oxford United to the crowds of 20 or so at, say, Sussex County League also-rans Southwick. You can find out which divisions feed to in this illustrated map.
2. Conference Rules — The Blue Square Premier rules everything. Just as the Premier League broke away in 1992, so a select group of clubs from the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues broke away to form the Alliance Premier League in 1979. After allowing teams in from the Isthmian League in 1982, it renamed itself the Football Conference in 1986 (and you’ll usually hear me refer to it as the Conference), when automatic promotion and relegation was introduced with the Football League. Since then it has become more and more like the Football League. The stadium regulations are stringent and nowadays the vast majority of clubs in it are fully professional (I’d go so far as to say that the big step up in quality is between the Conference and its two feeder leagues, the Conference North & South, than between the Conference and League Two). There are now two promotion and relegation places, with the champions promoted automatically and the next four clubs playing out tense play-offs at the end of each season.
3. Faded Glamour – Non-league football is stuffed full of former League clubs that, due to a mixture of bad luck, bad administration and long-term neglect, have fallen through the trapdoor and can’t get back up. A good number of their supporters are insufferably arrogant, referring to non-league clubs that haven’t been in the Football League as “tinpot” and, more often than not, the very competitions that they are in as “tinpot”. This overlooks one crucial fact: if non-league clubs and the Conference is “tinpot”, then their clubs are now “tinpot” too. One of the small pleasures that can be taken at the end of every season is the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those that simply can’t adjust to their new, reduced circumstances, as their (often expensively-assembled) teams fail yet again. There are currently eight former Football League clubs in the Conference (plus current leaders Aldershot Town, whose predecessors, Aldershot FC, were league members before folding in 1992 and reforming).
4. Up For The Cups — There are two cup competitions, as well as the FA Cup. The FA Trophy is played out by the “senior” clubs — clubs from the Conference and Conference North & South, as well as the regional Isthmian, Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. The FA Vase is played by the clubs at a lower level than this. With play-offs occupying many clubs’ minds nowadays, the cups are considered less important than they used to be, although last year’s final between Kidderminster Harriers and Stevenage Borough (the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley Stadium) drew a crowd of over 53,000. These competitions suffered immeasurably when Wembley was demolished in 2001 — the finals were played at the likes of Villa Park and White Hart Lane, but crowds fell massively. It’s hoped that the lure of a final at the rebuilt Wembley will continue to be a pull for supporters.
5. The Non-League Experience — Especially below the Conference, it’s vastly different to the Premier League and Football League. Entrance fees range for £3-4 at the very bottom to £13-15 in the Conference, and crowds are often unsegregated, meaning that supporters will “change ends” at half-time to stand behind the goal that their teams are attacking. The vast majority of grounds will have seating on one side only, and many lack covered terracing behind the goals. The clubhouse is also very important. Usually situated next to the ground, one can drink until five minutes before kick-off, half-time and after the match (and at some grounds, such as Conference South club Lewes, during the match — their clubhouse overlooks the pitch). A sizeable number of people go to non-league football for the social side of it as much as anything else.
6. Money’s Too Tight To Mention — Non-league clubs perennially struggle for money. There is precious little sponsorship, so most revenue comes on match days from gate receipts, bar takings, food and raffle tickets. One or two teams seem to fall by the wayside every season, yet there always seem to be more to take their place. Some boom and bust — they get taken over by a local made good who over-stretches their finances buying in players that their budget can’t afford, leaving them to flounder when the going gets tough. It is a far from ideal model for ownership or stewardship and it fails far more than it succeeds, but the short-sightedness of most non-league football supporters means that if you asked most of them what they’d like more than anything, they’d answer “a millionaire benefactor” without even thinking it. There are trust-run clubs which run on a more even financial keel, but these are still comparatively thin on the ground.
7. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow — There’s certainly a case to be made that, at least partly due to the flakier nature of their finances, non-league clubs often don’t have the same stability and durability as Football League clubs. If they get in trouble, banks will be more wary of propping them up and a small, poor club which owns its own ground is always at risk of the unwelcome attentions of asset-strippers and property developers. The collapse of a chairman’s business can result in a brush with closure. Some of the biggest non-league names of the last fifty years, such as Hendon, Enfield and Dulwich Hamlet (and it’s no coincidence that all three of these clubs are from London, where land values are amongst the highest in Europe) have all endured ongoing crises (culminating, in the case of Enfield, in the ground being sold, and the supporters breaking away to form their own club). Still, non-league clubs can be durable and adaptable. Mergers are often preferred to two clubs near each other closing — this week’s FA Cup heroes, Havant & Waterlooville, are a merged club.
8. Over The Hill — Now that the average Premier League player can make enough money in five years to retire, it’s less common to see former stars seeing out their last days, but there are still a few knocking about. The former Blackburn player Jeff Kenna (a Premier League winner in 1995), for example, still plies his trade in the Conference for Kidderminster Harriers, whilst former Wimbledon FC hero Marcus Gayle made an emotional return to AFC Wimbledon last summer, making him the only player to play for the old club in both the Premier League and the new club in the Isthmian League.
9. Watch Out For Gimmicks — The chairman of the Conference, John Moules, said weekend he would like to end 0-0 draws with penalty shoot-outs, believing it would bring people back to non-league football. If this had been suggested at a higher level, it would have provoked an outcry, but most people that know non-league football merely rolled their eyes and sighed. Non-league football has always been used for experiments, going back to the late 1940s, when the first floodlit matches in Britain were hosted there. In the 1980s, the Conference experimented with two points for a home win and three points for an away win. In the early 1990s, the Isthmian League allowed FIFA to run a year long experiment replacing throw-ins with kick-ins (half of the teams refused to take part, and carrying on throwing the ball on, the other half used every kick-in as an experiment to boot the ball as far down the pitch as possible). As we speak, the Conference is the only English league to have a salary cap, meaning that clubs can spend no more than 60% of their previous two years’ turnover on wages.
10. Father Knows Best — Parochialism rules the roost in non-league football. Having been fairly closely involved in it over the years, I know that a large number of the people involved are conservative to the point of paralysis, that some are utterly incompetent at their jobs and that there many people in senior positions at numerous clubs who are only interested in protecting their little fiefdoms. The irony is that non-league football is in an ideal position to capitalise on the malaise surrounding professional football. It has the potential to be able to offer a more competitive, cheaper, community-focussed alternative to “big” football. Whether the people running it have the wherewithal to seize that particular nettle, however, is a highly intractable question, as Dave recently explored on this site.