By David de Winter – Sports Editor
It’s an international weekend so most football fans (myself included) will be watching England face the might of Estonia at Wembley on Friday night. But what are football fans to do on Saturday? There are no Premier League or Championship fixtures this weekend and Wales’ trip to Bosnia & Herzegovina doesn’t kick-off until 7.45pm. That’s a whole Saturday afternoon without football, right? Wrong. It’s national non-league day this weekend, so why not head out on Saturday afternoon, take the kids, take your Dad (or Mum), even your girlfriend/boyfriend and support your local non-league side?
I’m no stranger to non-league football as I grew up supporting Woking FC, stalwarts of the Conference (or National League as it is now known). I didn’t used to go every week but during Woking’s ‘glory’ years (1994-97) I would go along to the big matches and saw them win three FA Trophy finals at Wembley. From the moment I watched Woking win the ’94 FA Trophy final a true love affair was formed that lasts to this day.
Now that I live in London (Croydon) I don’t get down to Kingfield as much as I would like. In fact I have been something of a bad omen for the Cardinals recently as the last three times I have watched them they have failed to score and have lost two out of three. But that is not why I support Woking FC. If I wanted success I would support a Premier League team (I sort of do – Liverpool, but they are about as successful as I am with the opposite sex).
But I don’t – I want to support my local tea because a) it matters to me and b) there is an enormous sense of community and belonging that you don’t get in the upper echelons of the game. The ticket price at Woking isn’t cheap – £15 – but I know my £15 matters to the club. It will genuinely help pay an electricity bill or buy a couple of extra balls for training, not pay for a sponsor’s posh lunch.
A little anecdote if you will: In August, Woking’s star striker Scott Rendell suffered a horrendous cruciate ligament injury. The club can’t afford to book him into the nearest private clinic, so instead, a Woking director set up a crowdfunding page to pay for Rendell’s operation and rehabilitation. The response was staggering. The £10,000 target was raised in a matter of days with donations coming in from all across the football community, league and non-league alike. It was heart-warming and indicative of the togetherness of the football fraternity.
It may surprise one or two of you that, in person, I actually prefer watching non-league football to Premier League football. I have taken in a fair few games at Premier League grounds and I find it quite a soulless experience. Of course the football is far superior to that of non-league level but the atmosphere is often lacking. Top flight clubs are used to success so when a team or player has a bad day, fans are very quick to berate. I’m often found wondering where the word ‘supporter’ comes from because often these so-called ‘fans’ are doing nothing of the sort.
Additionally, prices at the top level are obviously a lot more expensive across the board, for tickets, refreshments and in the club shop. Also, at Premier League level, there is a sense that you don’t really matter to the club. To them you are just a statistic in their corporate world of match-day revenue and turnover. You get the sense that you could be any Tom, Dick or Harry just as long as you pay the admission price (Fulham FC are the only exception to this in my experience).
So what can you expect if you pop down to your local side on Saturday? For one, you can expect to stand for the entire match. There are very few stadia in the lower leagues that have seated areas and if there are, they are often reserved for season-ticket holders. In any case I prefer to stand – it gives you a much more authentic football experience. Don’t expect beautiful football either; the pitches at non-league level are often diabolical, just like the standard of play, but expect plenty of commitment. Nowadays there are very few sliding tackles and full-blooded challenges at the top level. That hasn’t filtered down – you may be surprised and you might wince once or twice.
And, lest we forget, current England international and hot-shot Premier League striker Jamie Vardy spent his formative years in the lower leagues for the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels, FC Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town. You never know, if you head down to your local non-league side on Saturday you could be watching a star of the future.
But most importantly you don’t go to support your local team because of the standard of football – you go for the enjoyment factor. I went to see Liverpool thrash Spurs 3-0 last season at White Hart Lane and as much as I enjoyed that, I had a much better time watching Dulwich Hamlet beat Grays Athletic in the Isthmian League on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in January where there was no protection from the elements. The reason? Atmosphere (and the fact that we won the raffle).
There is a collective unity about fans in the lower leagues that you just don’t get in the Premier League. There is an acknowledgement that you have made the choice to come and watch your local team over a Premier League or Championship side despite the fact that the football is crap and the facilities are dire. That togetherness is something money can’t buy. Being a Woking fan means that there are many, many lows, but it also means that those few highs are euphoric because I feel like I’ve earned them.
So go and support your local non-league side on Saturday. You never know, just like me, you might even enjoy it.
To find your local non-league fixture, visit www.nonleagueday.co.uk for more information.