What Needs to Change in Non-League Football
We’ve been looking at English non-league football all week, and in something of a call-to-arms, Dave Boyle suggests that more supporters of non-league clubs need to take charge of their own destinies.
The last five years as an AFC Wimbledon fan have immersed me in non-League football. Up to then, I thought of non-League in much the same way as many who have not fully experienced it. Corinthian amateurs playing for the love of it, fans united in pursuit of survival rather than unrealistic dreams of global domination, officials motivated by simple service rather than power-brokering and politicking.
There is much of the non-League story about which English football can be justly proud. The depth of competitive football across the country is something that truly marks it out from many, many other countries and that is in no small part thanks to the unpaid hours put in by supporters all over the country. The culture of personal sacrifice, or pitching in for the greater good with no reward other than just making sure a team can take the park and the punters can pay over the turnstile.
But there is another side to the game which is less than admirable. I consider myself a friend of non-League football, and occasionally, friends have to tell people some home truths that might seem harsh. Like friends in our personal lives, I hope that people understand they are motivated by a desire to see the game improve and become what it could so easily be.
The Challenge of Non-League Football
It is important to recognise at the start the obstacles many clubs have to deal with. They are trying to compete against people with better resources, better access to the media and more pull with unaffiliated football fans. There is a justified sense of resentment at the way in which the better appointed within the game seem to go out of their way to make life difficult, such as with the scheduling of European matches.
But the idea that if some things from ‘big football’ simply disappeared life would become good is both untrue and dangerous. It stops the microscope being turned inwards to see what problems lie there.
For starters, there is a simple reason why non-League topics do not get coverage on national and regional TV or newspapers. Clubs outside the top six in the Premiership can make the same claim, and with more people watching the Football League clubs each year than the Premiership, it is a justified grievance. But below the bottom tier of the Football League, the lack of coverage reflects the reality of the audience’s interests, not bias against the non-League game.
Take midweek matches. There is absolutely no chance of the bigger clubs holding a moratorium on week night fixtures. Therefore smaller clubs would be better advised to try to work out why people prefer their sofas and TV than vainly hoping for the European Cup will revert to its old knock-out format.
Now, I’m sure that some would cite a chicken and egg argument here. The lack of coverage the non-League game gets does contribute to the lack of profile the top flight gets for free in every daily newspaper. But regardless of what came first, the top flight is not going to forego coverage, and nor are the newspapers about to radically re-appraise their policy.
Changing Non-League Football
Change is going to have to come from below. And that change might include the ‘exclusive’ atmosphere that some clubs cultivate. Make no bones about it — following non-League sides is a labour of love. To keep the faith in the face of the rival fare on offer, the facilities provided and the length of journeys involved requires an uncommon sense of attachment. But maybe this virtue is also a potential problem?
Let me explain. If football fandom is obsessional, to extend the metaphor, non-League is a little kinky. It is an acquired taste, and like stilton, black olives and real ale, things that need effort to be acquired will always be minority pursuits in competition to the blandness of the mass-market cheddars and lagers.
But in an environment where the very existence of a club is permanently in doubt, what tastes are people being invited to acquire?
The Siege Mentality
When some Manchester United fans intimated they were thinking of starting their own team (ultimately FC United), many in non-League criticised them. Why did they not all start watching nearby Altrincham or Droylsden? The point is that the whole reason they wanted to start again was because they were annoyed at having someone steal their club. The last thing they wanted was to do the same to others.
More cynically, officials of one club effectively offered to sell FC United their league place in the Conference as long as they played in that town, an offer the FC United board immediately refused. At AFC Wimbledon, some long-standing officials of Kingstonian intimated that a merger between the two clubs would make most sense.
Sadly, the fans of both FC United and AFC Wimbledon continue to be on the end of grumpy letters in the Non-League Paper and on various internet forums. The main crime they appear to have committed, though, is simply to be new. They have not got the battle scars from flirting with extinction, nor the enamel badges of the glorious FA Trophy run to the semi-finals way back in the day.
Through my day job I have been lucky enough to travel the country working with fans at the 45 non-League clubs who now have a Supporters’ Trust, and through Wimbledon I have seen a lot more clubs. At many there is something there that looks like a siege mentality. There seems to be a lingering passive-aggressive sense that everyone is being measured by how much — or how little — they are doing for the cause. Are they a real fan? Do they do enough?
Let’s imagine you have moved to an area with a small non-League club. You don’t want to go to the professional club up the road; you like the idea of non-League football and you’re attracted to a place without the exploitative attitude prevalent higher up the leagues.
You’ll find that the price to get in will more than likely be over £10, which surprises you, as the place looks and feels ramshackle. The toilets are pretty basic and you might see fixtures and fittings well past their useful life, victims of one-too-many cutbacks on year-end maintenance having to be shelved through lack of funds.
You’ll be asked to add to your spending for a burger that is often unedifying and potentially unhealthy. There is the commemorative badge to buy, the collection of old programmes to peruse, the Race Night to go to, the end of season fundraiser to turn out for. There is an all-pervading sense of this club having to practically suck money out of people over and above the basics of a match ticket and a cup of tea.
So you contribute but wonder why, despite this, the club seems to be living hand-to-mouth and whether things could perhaps be improved on the cost control side of things, with every bill a crisis waiting to explode. You are told — like an article of faith — that the board and the officials are tremendous chaps who work ever so hard and have done for years. The fact that the benefits of their efforts are not particularly clear is neither here nor there.
The Supporters’ Club often do not seem interested as there is a raffle to organise, and ultimately one would not want to annoy the directors by asking difficult questions. What if they stop the players attending the end-of-the-season function organised by the Supporters’ Club? The whole thing feels like a fund-raising scheme that occasionally plays a match and you would be forgiven for deciding that it is not for you.
Best keep to oneself darker thoughts about rampant egos of many of the people who have become owners or Chairmen of non-League clubs, musings about why people are prepared to get involved in this level, about the status of the loans the board makes, and whether the ground is being lined up for redevelopment.
The Endless Crisis
It has been going on so long that many simply accept this as the natural order of things. Every few years, the budgets get blasted apart, a crisis ensues, and new local worthies come forward. They run the club the same way as their predecessors, the debts build up and there is a crisis again a bit later leading to a new set of worthies coming forward. Repeat again and again, with a ground sale and new stadium thrown in every generation or so.
Except each time, a little bit more of the club dies. A few more supporters disappear, and a few other potential fans walk away. And a strategy for success that seems to be based on importing the worst features of the professional game will never resolve it.
There is a palpable sense that so many clubs are so desperate for success, so desperate for an end to the incessant work and fund-raising that they will be grateful for any benefactor in a storm, who often as not will leave a few years hence. To paraphrase the Life of Brian, fans say “you’re the saviour of the club, and we should know, since we’ve followed a few!”
The days when non-League football could regularly get five-figure crowds have gone, as have the clubs who were best placed to get those types of crowds, most of them having become league clubs over the last 40 years.
The only path to success for non-League clubs is to truly re-orientate themselves as community clubs: owned by their communities and run by them, not by an assorted collection of businessmen of dubious strategic vision, nor giants of the local football scene who have been doing it their way for so long that they have forgotten that new ideas are always needed. All of this is, of course, dependent on a volunteer army of well-meaning fans who have for too long acted as though it is tantamount to treason to ask that their love and loyalty be rewarded with a meaningful stake in the club, and a say in how it is run.
Non-League football — away from the hype and greed of the professional game — is well placed to enjoy a renaissance as people want to see their local club and be filled with pride at being able to identify as a supporter of it. As fans of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester have shown, people who have enjoyed the Premiership can find a lot more to cherish further down.
But for it to happen, the current generation have to change the vibe. There are good times waiting to happen across the country if supporters can grasp the opportunity to make it happen and take on real involvement themselves. Time to get the party started!