As stated elsewhere within this website, much noise is made about my favourite non league side Stalybridge Celtic. For once, I intend to write a (fairly) neutral article on supporting non league football. The object of this article is to not only share my experiences of watching the 'Bridge, but also to 'sell' the experience of non league to potential fans. These include people new to their local areas, or persons fed up of watching Premiership football, live or on television.
Why watch non league football?
Football in the eyes of the public is often perceived as a most boring sport played by the overpaid for the underpaid. Major teams have been associated more with matters off the pitch rather than on the pitch. These include high ticket prices, numerous changes of team strips and the odd scandal here and there.
In national journals, football coverage has 99% of its pagination focused on 0.1% of all clubs. This gives the perception that there are no teams below the Conference National league. Not so, as over 95% of football is played outside the 92 league clubs from the Conference leagues to the Reading Sunday League.
Some are tired of the other things peripheral to supporting their favourite team. These include psychoanalysis of each team's performance, extensive television coverage and pay-per-view fixtures. Other annoyances include traffic to and from the grounds, sterile stadia, and exorbitant ticket prices with credit card only bookings.
Outside the Football League and the FA Premier League, it is possible to avoid these annoyances and support a team within a short drive, walk or bus ride away. As opposed to being a worldwide brand or tradeable commodity, non league sides exist to serve their communities. Most non league sides are: Sunday league teams, works teams (Vauxhall Motors), local sports and social clubs (for example Worsborough Bridge Miners' Welfare) or formed by benefactors at some point (Stalybridge Celtic). Some, like the latter club stated, have previously played in the Football League, after resigning, relegation, or failing to gain re-election (other examples include Gainsborough Trinity, Workington, Darwen, Southport and Glossop North End).
A recent trend has seen the emergence of 'fans clubs' - mainly rebel sides, formed after dissatisfaction with their league clubs, or Phoenix clubs, risen from the ashes of administration, reformed by their fans. Within the former category are FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon and Enfield Town. In the latter category are Gateshead (reformed twice in the 1970s), Bradford Park Avenue and Spennymoor Town (formed after Spennymoor United resigned from the Northern Premier League in 2004 - 05, merging with Evenwood Town). The most successful club in recent years to have risen from the ashes of its predecessor is Accrington Stanley, who are now playing in Coca Cola Football League Two. The second version of Accrington Stanley were formed in 1968 by supporters of the late league side.
What to expect
- Smaller stadia with character;
- Fewer seats and open terracing (some grounds have grass banking);
- A family atmosphere, akin to a local pub, social group or church;
- Lower admission prices;
- Being able to see 22 men without the need for binoculars or long sighted vision;
- Better food and drink, mainly from local businesses (including real pies);
- Being able to change ends at half time;
- Not having to book weeks in advance for most fixtures.
For anyone who has spent half their life (and earnings) watching Premiership football, expect a culture shock. Expect to familiarise yourself with more idiosyncratic stadia, and regard anything (in non league terms) over 6,000 capacity as a large ground. Most of the non league grounds I have visited have more character than the average tin box seen in league football. Of the grounds I have visited, here are some examples of non league venues which are well worth visiting.
Please note that the grounds listed below are the ones I have actually visited.
- Bower Fold, Stalybridge Celtic: I make no apologies for my bias with this one. Bower Fold is covered on all four sides with 75% of its cover using cantilever roofs, and a generous 1,200 seats. Bower Fold is Tameside's only Football League graded ground. By the way, the pies are great and the ground is close to the Hare and Hounds public house, an Indian restaurant, and a gym (if you need to shed the pounds after a few pints, pies or lamb Bhunas);
- Richmond Park, Curzon Ashton: One of the best new grounds and rated non league ground of the season for 2005 - 06 by Groundtastic magazine;
- The New Bucks Head, AFC Telford United: One of the few non-league grounds superior to my home club's - and possibly a few Football League venues. Excellent well banked terracing, internal concourses and well appointed main stand. A special mention should also be made for its professionalism from crowd control to car parking. Better still, you could also stay overnight before a game - part of the ground includes a hotel - and the ground looks nothing like a tin shed;
- Stonebridge Road, Ebbsfleet United: Another ground in a lovable timewarp, though in an industrial setting;
- Westfield Lane, Frickley Athletic: One of the most exposed grounds in non league (and along with Seel Park, Mossley) the coldest. The main stand, reroofed in 1991 was built in 1926 by unemployed miners;
- Seel Park, Mossley: As cold as Frickley Athletic, though with fewer seats, more concrete terracing and good pies. An atmospheric ground with excellent views of the Pennine foothills;
- The Giant Axe, Lancaster: So called after the original shape of the ground caused by the running track which surrounded this ground till the 1970s. Very good social club and views of Lancaster Castle railway station (a must visit for non league football loving trainspotters);
- Rossett Park, Marine: A three sided ground shoehorned between terraced houses. Well worth visiting for its narrow side terrace and social club complex;
- Wellesley Recreation Ground, Great Yarmouth Town: An atmospheric ground with one of the oldest (sadly disused) main stands in non league football;
Choosing your non league side
For several people, it is always easy to back a successful side, whether they won the FA Premier League or the Manchester League. However, it takes some gumption to choose an underachieving local side, because they are nearer home than nearer to the Champions League.
A good idea is to go to a handful of non league games within a short distance from home. Then decide which team you would like to adopt. From past experience, I went to see the other Tameside teams besides Stalybridge Celtic, and the 'Bridge became my adopted team, due to the atmosphere at Bower Fold and the fans.
The ideal local club must be at least an hour or less away by inland public transport.
Anyone who supports a league side will be familiar with the FA Cup, one of the best footballing competitions in the world. Before the first round proper, there are numerous qualifying rounds. Usually, the preliminary round and the qualifying rounds start from August and run till the final Saturday in October. The First Round usually takes place in the middle of November, the point when the national press take interest, in the hope that Blyth Spartans (or other non league side) had beaten Wrexham or any other league team.
As well as the FA Challenge Cup (to give it its full name) there is also the FA Trophy, the FA Vase, FA Sunday Cup and the FA Youth Cup.
The FA Trophy was first competed in 1968 - 69, with Macclesfield Town the first winners. This competition focuses on the more senior non league sides, those which would make up the three Conference leagues and its feeders.
In the early 1970's, when the distinction between amateur and professional teams were broken, the former FA Amateur Cup became the FA Vase. The FA Vase focuses on the non league sides within regional feeder leagues such as the North West Counties League and the Northern League.
The finals of all national FA competitions are played at Wembley, with the 2006 - 07 season being the first season at the new Wembley stadium. In the five years during its redevelopment, Barclays Premier League grounds had been chosen. The 2005 - 06 season saw the FA Vase final tie contested at St. Andrews (Birmingham City) with the FA Trophy final being held at the Boleyn Ground, Upton Park (West Ham United). The Sunday Cup final was played at Anfield (Liverpool).
Non league football is made up of several leagues forming a Pyramid system. The first steps towards the pyramid system were made with the formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979 (today's Blue Square Premier league). This is fed by teams from the Conference North and Conference South (Blue Square North and Blue Square South). Promotion is gained on winning one of the leagues or a play-off final. This in turn is fed by regional leagues, like the Northern Premier League, the Southern League and the Isthmian League (London and South East clubs).
Each senior regional league is fed by clubs from more regional leagues, such as the United Counties League and the West Midlands Regional League. These are fed by lesser regional leagues for greater locality (i.e. the Manchester League).
One exception to this rule is the Northern League. A majority of clubs within this league have opted out of the Pyramid system, due to excessive travel times and costs. A small number have left the Northern League in the last twenty years to join the Pyramid system, albeit with mixed success. One example is Whitby Town. However, the most high profile team to have moved from this league has gone on to greater things in Scotland. This team is Gretna, who till recently played in the Scottish Premier League, and the UEFA Cup, after finishing runners up to Heart of Midlothian in the Scottish League Cup.
The ethical approach to watching non league football
- If possible, travel to most games using public transport, bicycle or foot. As well as doing the planet a favour, your local team's social club could benefit. Say bye-bye to the orange juice and have a pint before the game;
- Join the supporters' club;
- Tell your friends about the wonderful world of non league football. Insist on bragging about your team's prowess than feign interest in the overhyped and overcovered games;
- Play an active role in the running of your adopted club. This can range from being a steward or working on their website;
- Support chartered coaches to away games instead of making your own way by car to away games. If you insist on driving, start a car sharing scheme;
- Support the official supporters' club or official club coaches to the away games - and press for more coaches;
- Travel on public transport to most away games where possible;
- Support locally owned shops, cafés and pubs.
Above all, enjoy yourself.
As an avid supporter of a non league football side for over a decade, it is worth the effort in finding obscure grounds and planning journeys to the back and beyond. It is worth the effort in telling your fellows that you went to South Elmsall for a Frickley Athletic game on a freezing November (when their highlight is seeing their favoured team on a big screen). Then they ask where South Elmsall is. Result: in one way you have alienated an audience, though at the same time you have got them thinking "I've never been there".
Football irrespective of level is much better experienced live, actually going to the games rather than watching it on a pub television. I have noticed this even more watching non league football. Rather than boast about a higher profile game, there seems to be more satisfaction going to Ossett Albion on a damp Saturday. As fewer people attend compared with the big 92 league clubs, you feel that you have taken greater ownership of this experience. This is as opposed to being one of so many million viewers happy about an England victory.
Watching a team with indifferent luck seems more compelling than watching one with frequent success. The latter breeds sterility and predictability. The former breeds anticipation and an experience akin to several roller coasters. Football would be a poorer game without a degree of unpredictability.
It is always easy to back a winning horse every time. If that horse has won the last fifty races, complacency sets in and the opportunity for challenge is missing. Though it may be nice to follow an already successful team, it doesn't quite compare with following a team with indifferent luck for several years. This is especially so if you find that your attendance at a night match against Hucknall Town with only 170 fans is rewarded the following season with a glut of trophies. Especially when you supported them through the lean times, before the 'hangers on' jump on the bandwagon in the middle of an unbeaten run and ruin the parade.
At present, non league football is seeing at one end of the scale increased attendances, with the national Conference League almost in effect a fourth division of the Football League. The down side has been increased financial pressures on smaller clubs, with players joining more established Conference clubs. At the other end, attendances are being affected by the impact of live televised football. Examples of this have included Premiership football beamed by foreign channels at the 3.00pm Saturday kick off time. Another includes the clashing of international fixtures with non league competitions. Last season, some rounds of the F.A. Trophy and Vase clashed with international games.
More so than ever, local non league sides need your support.
Six Tame Sides: the trials and tribulations of Mike Smith, a Mossley based non-league football fanatic, photographer and lover of real ale.
The Non League Grounds of Great Britain, Kerry Miller; Polar Publishing (1995);
The Non League Club Directory: the definitive handbook detailing almost every non-league team in the UK, published on a season by season basis.
Periodicals and Newspapers:
The Non League Paper: Britain's first non-league newspaper, published on a weekly basis each Sunday since 2001;
Groundtastic: a quarterly fanzine devoted to football grounds around the world, from Spanish non-league grounds to English Premier League venues.