Deputy Sports Editor
Often wrongly associated with the stereotypes of Sunday League, non-league football has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years due to the spiralling prices of top-level football.
Granted, there are teams whose forward line consists of a ‘target man’ who loves nothing more than to chew the ref’s ear off for ninety minutes, but these stereotypes become blatant misconceptions when applied to the entirety of semi-professional football.
After all, there is an undoubted quality outside the Football League.
Jamie Vardy, Charlie Austin, Michail Antonio and Yannick Bolasie all started their careers in non-league.
More recently, Lewis Wing has made the step-up from working in a warehouse whilst at ninth-tier AFC Shildon to being one of Championship side Middlesbrough’s most creative players.
However, players aren’t the only thing which the professional game should take from non-league.
One of the main strengths of the non-league game is its affordability.
At a time when professional clubs’ incomes rise year-on-year through multi-billion-pound television deals and ridiculously diversified commercial activities, savings are rarely passed on to their supporters (or customers, as they are becoming increasingly known as).
In contrast, without the diverse array of financial inflows seen in the professional game, non-league clubs depend on their supporters to a greater extent.
Out of this dependency emerges a symbiotic relationship where supporters and clubs work together for mutual benefit.
On the one hand, supporters are often more directly involved with their club.
Whether it be by volunteering on matchdays, assisting with ground maintenance or organising fundraising drives, they’re in it for the long haul and provide their clubs with vital support.
In essence, supporter-club relations are incredibly strong at non-league level.
Players, managers and other club staff, mix with fans in clubhouses and stadium bars and are open to answering supporters’ questions.
Prices are fair, and are usually discounted for season ticket holders, whilst there’s also none of the secrecy, undisclosed transfer fees and limited supporter-club interaction which has become so common in the professional game over the last few decades.
With fans and their clubs united, non-league clubs boast vociferous support which belies their low attendances.
In comparison, English professional football’s supporter culture–dogged by hooliganism on one hand and the sterile atmospheres of ultra-modern stadia on the other – is a mere shadow of its former self.
At non-league clubs such as Dulwich Hamlet, Clapton FC and FC United of Manchester, ninety-ninety atmospheres (90% of supporters singing for 90% of the time).
Inflamed by pyro-donning supporters and invigorated by passion and pride ensure that terrace culture remains alive and kicking at non-league level.
With seating and standing often unrestricted, fans of different clubs can interact with each other face to face and foster friendly rivalries which resist the animosity and violence that footballing rivalries can aggravate elsewhere.
In a sentence, what non-league football does best is optimise the supporter experience.
Though the facilities and quality of play may be lower than in the professional game, that’s an unavoidable reality when everyone involved is part-time and anyway, that’s part of the beauty.
Non-league football is salt of the earth football played, ran and supported by salt of the earth people.
In its openness and honesty, it is far closer to the game we all fell in love with as children kicking a ball about on the streets with our mates than the gaudy, sterile and airbrushed television programme which the modern professional game has become.
Perhaps in that blissful authenticity lie lessons which professional clubs and governing bodies could learn.
They could put what was once the working man’s game back into the hands of the people who made it as it is today: rather than for the broadcaster and the shareholder.
Photograph: Kafuffle via Wikipedia