The debate over whether the English top division is the best in the world is as lengthy as it is tedious, but there is one fact that cannot be disputed – the depth of the English system dwarfs that of any of its global counterparts. Beneath our four tier league set-up extends a vast expanse of divisions forming the Non-league pyramid, the footballing hierarchy which makes football in England truly unique.
For the average football fan, Non-league merely gives rise to the odd FA Cup cameo here (see Havant & Waterlooville’s inspired display at Anfield), the occasional hidden gem of a player there. Aside from these fleeting appearances this parallel footballing universe remains mostly undiscovered by the majority. But this could be about to change.
The gaping chasm which has developed between football clubs and their supporters during the Premier League era has created a relatively empty experience. Fans are now ‘consumers’ and football is a ‘product’ to be marketed to the masses. This shift in focus is driving an increasing number of fans to look beneath the glitz and glamour of the top divisions and instead to the lower reaches of English football.
The most striking aspect of Non-league is the extent to which fans remain crucial to the success of their clubs. Without the lucrative TV deals that have turned the heads of League sides, getting supporters through the turnstiles is fundamental to the cause. Matches are a far more inclusive affair with fans packed together on old-style terraces, a throwback to a bygone footballing era. After the game, and regardless of the result, fans and players can have a drink together in the club bar.
The obvious criticism of Non-league football relative to its wealthier League cousin is that the quality of football does not bear comparison. Clearly the market mechanism of football will result with the more talented players gravitating towards the higher divisions, but this argument misses the point – for a match to be entertaining it is competitiveness, not quality that is essential. For example, while the World Cup ought to be a showcase for the game’s premier players, far too often the desire to preserve and protect outweighed any attacking ambition, resulting in dire stalemates in which neither team dared to take on their opponent. At elite club level, the Champions’ League group stage is becoming an increasingly pointless exercise as the big guns of European football must systematically pick off numerous lesser teams before the genuine contests can commence.
To dismiss Non-league players as lacking sufficient ability to entertain fans would also be unfair, as highlighted by the number of amateurs and semi-professionals that have made the progression into the top divisions even in the modern age of high-spending and multinational teams. Chris Smalling made his Manchester United debut this season but even as recently as April 2008 he was featuring for Maidstone United in the Ryman League the 7th tier of English football. Jermaine Beckford’s ascent up the leagues to Goodison Park was kick-started at Wealdstone, where he combined his footballing career with a day job fitting windscreens for the RAC.
This rags to riches story has already found its way into footballing folklore, but few people will realise that Beckford’s story actually began at current Premier League Champions Chelsea. Deemed surplus to requirement upon graduating from their youth team, Beckford had to drop down into Non-league in order to save his career.
Each season hundreds of other players are similarly released by large clubs and left without a team. Non-league affords these young footballers a lifeline, perhaps the chance to impress a scout from a League team, but most importantly just a chance to play a game of football on a Saturday.
On occasion it has not just been players that have found themselves without a club, but also fans. When Wimbledon relocated away from their South West London base to become the Milton Keynes Dons, lifelong fans were suddenly left without a team to support. Rather than simply switch their allegiance to a rival club, a group of supporters decided to form a new side, AFC Wimbledon, which would embody the spirit of their now extinct club. Entered into the Combined Counties League in 2002, this team would go on to achieve promotion in four out of the next seven seasons and currently sit first in the Conference Premier, the top tier of Non-league.
The AFC Wimbledon story makes for great reading, but for the vast majority of Non-league teams simply surviving in the current financial climate is proving to be the greatest challenge. This season has seen Ilkeston Town of the Conference North wound up in the high court as a result of unpaid tax bills, highlighting the fine margins at which these clubs operate.
This is why attracting fans from League clubs is becoming increasingly important for Non-league. As an antidote to extortionate ticket prices and under-valued supporters Non-league sides can thrive. Last month saw ‘Non-league Day’ held on the Saturday of international weekend (when there are no fixtures in England’s top two divisions) to great success. The key message is that Non-league is not a replacement for League football, but a complement to it. If you can’t afford the time or money to watch your ‘first’ team, head down to your local club and enjoy an undiluted football experience.