I LIKE Non-League Day. I’ve heard cynicism about the concept — people wondering why there is a need to make a special event, even condemnation of those who turn up once a year to their local football club never to be seen again, returning to the bosom of the all-powerful Premier League.
To me though, it’s a nice reminder that football is a sport that isn’t just played in vast stadiums by supreme athletes watched by moneyed supporters.
It isn’t just a full-time professional game, either.
Of the 140 individual leagues, containing more than 480 divisions, featuring thousands of football teams up and down the country, it’s only, in relative terms, a privileged few that live in the bubble of 70-point headlines, subscription TV and £1,000 season tickets.
Meanwhile, every week of the football season will see grounds maintained, clubhouses patched up, grass cut, lines painted, kits washed, sandwiches prepared, tea made and everything else that goes into running a club no matter what the size.
At the top of the game, such work is carried out by salaried staff paid a pinch of the millions of TV cash washing around the big club’s bank accounts.
At the poorer end of the pyramid, the game survives because of community, competition and commitment. Every time I walk into a non-league ground I like having a look around, taking in who’s doing what and where. People doing it for the love, week in, week out — in all weathers and often against the odds.
The Salford City TV documentary on the BBC has offered a good insight into the kind of people keeping these clubs going year after year. It’s not the ‘Class of 92’ that deserve the credit there — it’s the no-shit woman running the cafe. It’s the cynical bloke who looks after the ground.
It’s a testament to those who create clubs and those who maintain the tradition, allowing players up and down the country to play for some reward and allowing those who support them to enjoy the game without breaking the bank.
It’s a different world to the Premier League but it still has its charm and can still generate the feel-good. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be here. It feels like a real challenge though – keeping the infrastructure ticking over, organising transport, raising money, paying players…it can’t be easy.
So non-league can offer a warm glow for everyone. Anyone walking through the gate, buying a pint, a pie, or a programme is helping. You’re not a replaceable bum on a seat – you’re making a difference. And at most clubs you’ll get a decent welcome if you take the time to go to a match and speak to those involved.
Today, along with John and Laura Gibbons, I went to Burscough of the Northern Premier League Division One (level eight of English football).
There were a few options for a game for Non League Day – I was tempted by Cammell Lairds, and Bootle were at home as well.
But this was an FA Cup tie — a first-round qualifier, and that does, and should, give it an edge. More, it was against Maine Road (they play in the North West Counties League – level nine), a club founded by Manchester City fans that plays in its big brother’s colours and even sports a similar club badge.
A chance to watch footie, have a pint, and hopefully witness some Mancs have their day spoiled? Happy days.
John Gibbo had an early touch of the ball as it came flying out the ground as we walked towards the turnstiles. We handed over £8 each to the elderly gentleman on the turnstiles and after buying raffle tickets for the half-time draw (a bottle of red and a bottle of white the prize) we took our seats in the stand as rain battered the pitch.
Observation one was the difference in team make-ups – Burscough appeared to be the gnarlier, perhaps more seasoned, why Maine Road had plenty of youth in their side, a couple of the players appearing to be still in their teens. The visiting side also had some pace and trickery in their armoury, while the Lancashire hosts were the better at keeping possession.
It was a decent game, Burscough chalking up a 2-0 lead by the 38th minute but Road forcing a good save out of the home keeper and also claiming a penalty not given by the unsighted referee who had hopefully turned to a linesman even further away from the incident.
Another ball left the ground and while a replacement was sought the ref blew for half-time, seemingly having had enough of getting piss-wet through.
A big portion of the 116 present headed for the bar and maybe like us were pleasantly surprised to see change out of a tenner for three drinks. No chance of that in the Premier League.
We swapped sides in the second half, opting for terrace over stand, and it was soon apparent this was the standing area of choice for those over from Manchester, including a woman who sounded remarkably like Janice Battersby from Coronation Street.
Half-time at Burscough. No joy for me or Gibbo in the half-time draw, the bottle of red and bottle of white has gone elsewhere. On the pitch, Burscough lead Maine Road 2-0 although they are fortunate not to have conceded a goal, a blinding save from the home keeper and some poor finishing from the visiting Mancs ensuring the sheet is clean for The Linnets. Now celebrating #nonleagueday2016 with a half-time pint in the clubhouse. Up the Greens! Robbo @burscoughfc
The Mancs’ mumbles were soon becoming bluer as Burscough scored a belter – an overhead kick from the number 10 kissing the bar before crossing the line. No telly cameras at this level or that lad could happily retire with YouTube footage to show the grandkids.
It looked like Maine Road’s FA Cup dreams were over but two goals in 10 minutes had the Poundshop Corrie cast starting to believe. Burscough had switched off a bit, but were cute enough to play some possession football and a fourth goal nine minutes before time looked to have finished off the tie.
There was a final twist when a rash challenge in the area gave Maine Road the chance to pull one back from the spot – a chance snapped up with a smart penalty – but the goal was shortly followed by the final whistle and it was back to the bar for more cut-price ale and a grin at the player demanding to know where the post-match grub was.
The vibe in the bar was great. Laughs, analysis of the game, the players and the supporters chatting together — it’s easy to see the appeal. And, even for this one-off attender: seven goals, an overhead kick, a last-minute penalty, some comedy comments, a cheap pint and a laugh with your mates. What’s not to love?
Gibbo has already committed to going to every Liverpool league game this season (and possibly the cups). Now there’s talk of following Burscough in the FA Cup.
What better entertainment is there for eight quid? Up the Greens.
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