Ben Foster tweeted last week - "Going to watch my mate @tomTJjames3 play for Nuneaton today vs Luton. Feels good having a Saturday to go and watch the footy! #piesandbovril". I'm now a big fan of Ben Foster.
I assume many of you reading this are fans of Premier League clubs, or like myself, former Premier League clubs. As such, I also assume that your awareness of football outside the Premier League/Championship is limited. Coverage of the FA Cup first round proper and the inevitable headlines that non-league clubs attract if they account for league opposition gives the footballing world a rare glimpse of non-league football and all that it entails. That's why I love this time of year.
I am a proud Middlesbrough fan - there weren't many young lads growing up in Guernsey with a Boro shirt and the name Wilkinson on the back. In fact, there was only one, and he had to explain to his mates where in the world Middlesbrough was and who this Paul Wilkinson fella was. Despite my love for the Boro, my interest in football as presented in today's media has been waning for quite some time. As a gaffer and former player, you'd think I'd be an avid spectator every Sunday afternoon or Tuesday night but the truth is that given the choice of watching something like The Apprentice on one channel or Champions League coverage on the other, Lord Sugar normally wins. I do watch football on the television from time to time.
I was captivated by Celtic's victory over Barcelona last week. The Bhoys' victory was some spectacle, both for the sheer drama on show at Celtic Park, but also as a tactical demonstration of attack versus defence. Celtic's compact unit camped in front of their penalty area was a great example of a well drilled, fit, disciplined and hard working team executing a plan to deny their opponents' undeniable attacking threat the space in advanced areas that a team needs to score goals. That's the reason I watch the game on television these days - to analyse the technical side of the game and learn from what I see. As for entertainment and pure escapism, football doesn't really do it for me in the same way that watching my Rocky box set or even the X Factor on a Saturday night does. I still love the game and my passion for it is stronger than ever in some ways, I just don't enjoy watching the soap opera of football I often see these days.
There is a growing band of football fans who prefer to focus on football closer to what I consider to be the game's roots and more connected with their respective local communities. Non-League football is growing from strength to strength in every way imaginable. Whilst news of the latest professional club in financial ruin is fresh in the mind, a lot of non-league clubs are benefiting from higher crowds and more media attention as a result of growing resentment towards football at the highest level. Inflated players' wages, inflated ticket prices, inflated egos on and off the pitch - the game at the elite level is a long way removed from the fans and even players who initially established football as the people's game. I hear some of you saying that it's just change, and that change happens in every walk of life. I just don't like the values or lack thereof that top level football represents in this day and age.
The Non-League Paper, the Non-League Show on the BBC radio, Premier Sports TV and numerous clubs run TV stations, podcasts and websites have all done their bit to promote and grow awareness of the game outside the top four divisions in England. Last weekend's results demonstrated what many of us have known for some time - that top non-league teams are capable of beating football league opposition. And not just because they parked the bus and got lucky on a cow patch for a pitch - some of the so called shocks of FA Cup first round saw non-league sides comprehensively outplay league opposition.
I am, of course, biased. Having not been good enough to make a living from the game, I played non-league football for a number of years across the north of England. Whilst doing so, I developed a great affinity with the people involved in the game. Not so much the players - though I've stayed in touch with a few lads, many of the faces you see in the dressing room are there one minute and gone the next - but the volunteers who helped run the clubs, some of the club directors, the supporters who travelled away on the bus week in week out and also the coaches/managers I worked with. As one of the few players at that level who had never been a full-time footballer, I guess I viewed the game differently in comparison to many of my team mates. I think some of them took the game for granted, seeing it as a very necessary way of supplementing the income they now had to earn in the real world. I was fascinated by the whole experience and felt very lucky to be involved at that level of football so always took the time to talk to the many people who helped make the game at that level what it was. When fans and players/coaching staff mix freely in that way, either in the bar after a game or on the coach to away games, the bond is so much stronger and everyone, fans included, feel a sense of ownership and collective responsibility for the club's fortunes.
When I get the chance to take my young son to a game these days, we are always made to feel welcome at one of the senior non-league clubs in my part of the world, whether that's in the club shop buying a few programmes for his collection, running up and down the terraces when he's bored of watching or in the bar after a game. It all costs me less than £20 for entrance, some food, some old programmes for him and a drink for each of us in the bar after the game. The last time we went to watch the Boro, it cost £14 just for him to get in, and he's only four. The difference between £20 and £50 for a Saturday afternoon at the football is significant, even for those with a reasonable level of disposable income once the mortgage and bills are paid. Ok, the product is very different and the standard of football is undoubtedly superior at the Premier League level, but as an experience that provides entertainment, fan engagement with the club, value for money and some decent football to watch, I'd choose non-league six days out of seven.
Non-league football is not immune to some of the issues that I think put the game in a bad light at the top level. Clubs over spending and ending up in administration or worse, attacking players feigning injury or diving without so much as a defender in sight and even the odd bit of crowd trouble have all been evident in non-league circles this season. I also don't want to detract from the many well run football league clubs who don't pay disproportionate wages to players who don't deserve it yet still struggle to make ends meet - they need every fan they can get too. I'm still a football man at heart and there are many aspects I love about football at the top end of the scale, I just get more enjoyment out of the non-league experience.
The introduction of Non-League Day has seen many Premier League season ticket holders use those season tickets to grant them cheap or free access to try out the non-league experience. Ever more creative and imaginative schemes developed by non-league teams to attract more fans are now available and are providing football fans old and new with the chance to get more bang for their buck in an environment where their contribution is appreciated.
So the next time you decide to pop along to a top game and hand over the best part of £100, you would be well advised to stop for a moment to consider going local and trying out non league football.
And say hello to Ben if he's in the queue for a pie at half time.
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