Home Football MARC WILLIAMS: ‘Why would I want to go and watch that?’

MARC WILLIAMS: ‘Why would I want to go and watch that?’

by Marc Williams
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lower league football

Mapperley-based sports writer Marc Williams shares his own opinions and thoughts on national footballing topics.

251 of the most dedicated spectators had just watched Nottinghamshire-based Gedling Miners Welfare share the spoils with Heanor Town in an enthralling 3-3 draw in the tenth tier of English football one bitter December afternoon when a feeling of pride kicked in.

Welfare’s largest crowd of the season – inevitable against their renowned Derbyshire opponents – make their journeys home and the tireless efforts of behind-the-scene volunteers conclude for yet another weekend of non-league football.

Goal nets are hauled down, muddy paths are swept and interviews are conducted in a makeshift portacabin with questionable lighting and frazzled audio. The freshly washed teams trundle their way to the nearby clubhouse where a chip roll and a pint of something awaits to replace lost electrolytes.

Opposing players, often friends, work colleagues and former teammates at this level, huddle in smoking areas to discuss the 90 minutes with playful tongue-in-cheek banter, meaningless jibes and jovial quips before doing it all again next week.

Groundhoppers. Raffles. Togetherness – all synonymous with non-league football. This is the proper game and there is nothing else like it.

Sitting nine steps below the Premier League, the East Midlands Counties League, and many others, is miles adrift, where clubs are indebted to the help of the often-unpaid players and volunteers, local communities and sponsorship – small or large – all with no guarantee of a future.

Up and down the country, efforts of those committed to the non-league cause are facing regular adversity. Crippling finances, break-ins and little governing support are a select number of factors that are contributing to club liquidation, and the incline of their uphill battle to maintain a status as a football club becomes ever steeper.

Groundhoppers. Raffles. Togetherness – all synonymous with non-league football. This is the proper game and there is nothing else like it.

But despite that, and with the Premier League juggernaut becoming stronger each year, the popularity of non-league football is rising and those deterred by the monetised behemoth that graces our television screens week in, week out are beginning to find out why.

To others, it has been there all along.

Since its introduction in 1992, the Premier League has become an entity that has reached unforeseen levels with little sign of slowing down, and the oft-repeated phrase that the working man is being priced out of the game is becoming increasingly poignant.

The beautiful game which we all know and love is being diluted into commercialised marketing propaganda that only favours corporate guests, tourists and the prawn sandwich eater, with ‘real’ fans of the sport being left in the dark.

Ticket prices, television subscription rates and lack of empathy are forever increasing and the experience of attending a game in today’s market feels overwhelmingly expensive and sterile.  And with any emotion now utterly sapped by video assistant referees, or VAR, fans are now seeking a more economical, less-tinkered alternative.

Any avid follower of non-league will vouch that it is not just the affordable prices and simplicity that keeps them coming back – it is a lot more than that – and football played at the depths of the FA’s pyramid system is now slowly clawing its way back to its rightful level following a renaissance in recent years.

PICTURED: Former Norwich City Striker Grant Holt warming up as a substitute for Wroxham in the FA Vase. Credit: Nick Palmer (@stickypalms)

With rustic straightforwardness and an overwhelming sense of camaraderie, non-league football allows fans to strip back any PR and marketing gloss, a millionaire budget and fancy leather seats and get back to the beating heart of the game played in a relatable environment.

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Clubs at this level are, quite inevitably, operationally smaller in size to their professional counterparts, but are immensely close-knit; as one with their local community and ridding of any untouchable titles, such as board member, chairman or president.

Everyone is family and the sense of belonging is unmatched. 

The affordable quality is there, too, with little surprise when supporters frequently read of non-league players stepping up and succeeding at full-time level.  

We have all heard of Jamie Vardy’s story. He combined a job as a technician whilst playing for Stocksbridge Park Steels in the Northern Premier League Division One South before signing for Halifax Town (then-Northern Premier League) in 2010.

Moves to Fleetwood Town (then-National Premier League) followed before he secured a £1million move to Leicester City – a non-league record fee – to become Premier League champion in 2016.

But whilst Vardy’s impressive career continues to fledge, he’s not the only player who owes a lot to non-league for their rise through the ranks.  

Before signing for Reading in 2008, West Ham United winger Michail Antonio plied his trade at Tooting and Mitcham. Chris Smalling, now on loan at Italian giants Roma from Manchester United, began his football career at Maidstone United.

Yannick Bolasie (Hillingdon Borough), Jimmy Bullard (Gravesend and Northfleet), Ian Wright (Greenwich Borough) all look back with fond memories and the trend continues as January’s transfer window saw many fulfil their childhood ambitions.

League Two’s Forest Green Rovers announced the signing of Josh March from Leamington of the National League North, whilst Muhammadu Faal and George Thomason secured moves to Bolton Wanderers from Towns Enfield and Longridge respectively.

Blackpool plumped for Warrington Town’s Ben Garrity on deadline day.

It is a beautiful spectacle and the sincerest testament to non-league football and its following.

However, it is not just the fresh-faced wonderkids, stepping into professional boots, whom be indebted to life outside the 92. Others, who have ‘been there and done it’, see it as one final stop-off; a late test at the tail end of their careers, before retiring into coaching, punditry… or wrestling.  

38-year-old, former WWE star and ex-Norwich City striker Grant Holt scored for Wroxham, based in the Norfolk Broads, as they progressed to the fifth round of the FA Vase with victory over South Normanton recently.

Well-travelled target-man Jamie Cureton (44) continued to score hat tricks at Bishops Stortford, before his move to Hornchurch earlier this month, and even Ricardo Fuller (40), who made several hundred professional appearances over a near 20-year career, is now seen leading the line for Nantwich Town this season.

With admission as low as £3 at some clubs, non-league football provides a sense of old-school nostalgia that will help the more disillusioned fan rediscover their love of the game, with even the possibility of an ex-professional cropping up somewhere or a starlet in the making.

It is cost effective entertainment that has fans wanting more with many teams adhering to a less conservative style of play that makes for high scoring and exciting contests, unlike the more reserved, multi-millionaires that play at England’s top table. 

You will feel welcomed. You may even stick around long enough to become part of the furniture. But more importantly, you will play a part in the existence and longevity of a much-needed commodity of any local town, city or village – a football club.  

To Jordan Sinnott,

a talented non-league footballer with Matlock Town who tragically died in Nottinghamshire on Saturday 25 January. He was 25.

A Huddersfield Town graduate, Jordan had spells at Altrincham, FC Halifax Town, Chesterfield, Alfreton Town before signing for Matlock in 2019.

Movingly, he scored his first ever career hat trick for the Gladiators in his last ever game; a 5-0 win over Basford United in the League Cup in mid-January, eleven days before his death.

Jordan Sinnott
1994 – 2020

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