BY DARREN NORTON
Ever sat down to send a tweet, and no matter how hard you try, simply can’t fit in everything you want to say in 140 characters? Well, at this very moment in time, I’m trying to condense the world of non-league football, with its dozens of leagues, hundreds of teams and thousands of players into one simple yes or no answer. Is the game below the Football League working?
Every fibre of my body wants to be able to type a big fat yes, but the reality is that the game at this level is too vast to say that in a convincing manner. If someone was to ask if the Premier League was a success, then that would be relatively easy to answer. Twenty teams in the (allegedly) best league in the world and the hype machine that is Sky Sports shouting to anyone that will listen that they are watching the best product, on grass, anywhere in the world. The marriage made in heaven, blessed with endless television money and newspaper coverage, needs no explanation to a global audience. How could it possibly not be termed a success? However, as you make your way down the football pyramid, the picture is less clear. By the time you reach Leagues One and Two, where many clubs exist on a hand-to-mouth basis or on the back of a benefactor, it’s less about success and more about survival. At the fifth level of English football, the newly titled National League, a veritable mix of big names and wannabes exist. Here, the fallen giants of yesterday rub shoulders with the new world order, non-league’s up and coming cash-rich clubs, keen to eat at the table of the Football League. This is arguably the hardest league anywhere in our system to get out of.
So that’s the background, now back to the question. Is non-league football in good health? As mentioned above, the National League is a mix of ex-Football League sides fallen on hard times, such as Torquay United and Lincoln City. The former this week issued a plea for more spectators to attend games or see the club come perilously close to folding. The latter made a similar plea last season, even contemplating running a part-time squad this year. The other half of the division is headed by cashed-up Forest Green Rovers and Eastleigh. Rovers are bankrolled by a local energy millionaire with plans for a new custom built stadium to accompany their expected rise into the big-time. Likewise, Hampshire side Eastleigh are well funded and with a playing roster that would make most League Two sides blush, are equally favoured to reach the Football League for the first time in their history. Somewhere in the middle another 20 sides contest one of the most competitive divisions anywhere in Britain.
Below this level nothing is clear. It would appear that, like its big brother the Premier League, money is king. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Those that have continue down the road to ruin by largely investing in playing contracts they can ill afford. It’s catch-22 at this level. Clubs see an upcoming star and put him on a contract. A contract at non-league level guarantees a “wage” 44 weeks of the year (roughly the length of a season. Players aren’t paid out of season). However, should a bigger club come looking to sign this player, the club have every right to ask for a fee. It’s a risky tactic that clubs use to protect an asset. When used correctly the money raised from such a tactic can guarantee a club’s existence. Such contracts are commonplace in steps 3, 4 and 5. Many players can remain in full-time employment and make extra money from football at the weekend. Obviously this money is on a sliding scale, but payments of £100 per week are not uncommon at this level. How some clubs afford this on three-figure gates or less is questionable.
Which brings us nicely onto attendances – possibly the one criteria where the health of the game can be judged, as opposed to on a balance sheet. After all, getting fans through the gate is one thing, how the money is invested is another. At steps 1 to 4 of the pyramid, and comparing last season’s figures with those so far this season (most clubs have had at least 5 home fixtures) 20 of the top 50 are showing a reduction in spectator attendance. At this point it’s worth noting that all Vanarama National clubs feature in the top 50. Only six of those aren’t in the top 20. Of the 20 clubs that show a decrease in attendance, they average a 9% decrease. Of the 30 teams that show an increase on the previous season, they show an average growth of 24.5%. Like all figures, various factors come into play. One example is the size of the club relegated from the Football League. One of those is Tranmere Rovers, so far this season showing a 6% increase in gates, despite relegation. This figure was undoubtedly boosted by a 7000+ crowd for their game with near neighbours Chester. The other relegated team Cheltenham, show a massive 20% drop in their attendances so far. However, like everything sport and result related, crowds will invariably show up if the club has started the season well. Examples of this include Darlington, Margate, Corby and Guiseley, all showing 20+ % increases after last season’s promotion campaigns.
Another notable increase is at fan-owned FC United of Manchester. Sitting 4th in the attendance table, ahead of fellow National North side Stockport in 5th and National South side Maidstone United in 10th, the Rebel’s crowds are a fantastic 57% up on last season. Non-league’s ultimate success story recently opened their new Broadhurst Park stadium and the fans have responded, helped by a pay-what-you-can-afford season ticket initiative. Fellow new ground occupiers Maidstone have seen a 13% increase since opening their new home halfway through last season. The next highest placed team not in the National League are Darlington (step 3) averaging 1245 fans per game, despite playing their games down the road in Bishop Auckland. They have a higher average than fellow North East and ex-Football League side Gateshead (step 1). The clubs ranked from 51st to 100th show a 50/50 split in attendance increase/decrease. From 51st spot to 176th, 94 of the clubs show a decrease in attendances so far this season.
From these figures it’s safe to state that worryingly, the further down the pyramid you go, the decrease in attendance is greater. These figures are mirrored in steps 5 and 6. Many teams here play to sub 100 crowds. Again there are exceptions to the rule, a classic example being FA Vase winners North Shields of the Northern League (step 5). So far this season they boast a healthy 413 average attendance. Interestingly, neighbours South Shields, returning home after two years playing in Peterlee, have shown a 50% increase in gates, at an average of 325, with an impressive 642 present for the visit of Easington. Again, another factor could come into play here, namely the fortunes of professional neighbours Newcastle United. Many have given up on the Magpies and instead now follow the fortunes of their local non-league side.
There are three types of football fan: People that love football and will watch any level, those who watch only their team, and lastly, the much maligned “armchair fan”. Unfortunately, the first category are greatly outnumbered by the latter two. It could be argued that in the last 20 years the latter demographic outnumber both one and two and one of the biggest problems facing non-league football is from the third group, the armchair fan. Pubs and social clubs up and down the country show Premier League football at 3pm on a Saturday via various methods. This has had an impact on attendances at all levels of the game, but its non-league that can least afford to lose paying customers.
One of the initiatives to combat this and boost gates over the last few seasons has been “Non-League Day”. This initiative is a day set aside in English football where supporters of League sides are encouraged to experience football at non-league level with which they may not be familiar. The idea was suggested by founder James Doe in 2010. It is a non-profit and volunteer run initiative and is set up to coincide with a break in fixtures for Premier League and Championship sides during an international break. It has widespread backing from the media and has proven to boost attendances at the majority of clubs that participate. Many encourage the floating fan by offering reduced admission or other gimmicks designed to draw the customer in, and ultimately, get them to return. Season ticket holders at local professional clubs are encouraged to use their pass for free entry for example, the rationale for most clubs is that once in the ground the spectator will then buy a programme, perhaps something to eat or grab a drink in the clubhouse. All this is money that the club wouldn’t normally earn. It’s a calculated gamble from the clubs and unfortunately no solid evidence exists that fans suddenly flock to their local side. But for at least once a season it raises a profile and brings in much needed revenue. In an ideal world, and with my rose-tinted glasses on, the romantic in me would love to see hundreds if not thousands of fans forsake their regular team and support what is on offer at non-league level. This would probably mean fans abandoning a lifetime’s tradition on a Saturday, but let’s be honest, fewer and fewer games kick off at 3pm on a Saturday anymore. Wouldn’t it be great if they all turned their attention to a local game, and enjoyed what is on their doorstep, at a fraction of the price they usually pay?
This isn’t so much a state of the nation piece, it’s impossible to say what is working and what isn’t. There are far too many variables involved to come to a definitive “yes” or “no” conclusion. I can’t confess to knowing everything at every level of the game. What I can vouch for on a personal level is the game I watch most weekends, and what it brings to me. Take off the blinkers and forget the stereotypes that non-league suffers. It’s not “pub football”, nor is it witnessed by “3 men and a dog”. Ok, so the first touch might turn into a second and sometimes a third. The passes may not have laser precision nor do the headers carry as far. But nor do we suffer pampered prima-donnas throwing themselves to the floor at the slightest touch. Or players earning in a week what the average man earns in 10 years. The car parks aren’t full of Porsches or Bentleys. You hand over a fiver at the turnstile and are greeted with a smile and a welcome. You’ll hand over ten times that in the Premier League and be met with high-viz vests and forced to sit down for 90 minutes.
When I think back to the game I fell in love with 35 years ago, it’s nearer to what I watch now at non-league level than it is to the Premier League. For me, that is the greatest compliment you can pay it. It’s everything football should be in this country; affordable and accessible. If ever there was a time for non-league to cash in and make hay it’s now. Fan disenchantment is at an all-time high in the top flight, with a whole generation of youngsters priced out of ever going to a game. Attending football is a habit we pick up from an early age. Once that habit is broken, it’s so easy to drift away from the game all together. Let’s make attending non-league a habit for youngsters to get into and be proud of. A whole world of affordable football is out there for them.
YOU CAN FOLLOW DARREN ON TWITTER @knockernorton1