By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Non-league football: a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Barclays Premier League. Ramshackle stadiums in which you can only stand (for me, a plus), pitches that look like agricultural fields, facilities that are, putting it politely, limited, food of questionable quality, and football that is definitely for the purist. What’s not to love?
I attended my first match at my local team, Woking FC when I was about 5 years old back then it was called the Vauxhall Conference. I don’t remember anything about it, but I must have enjoyed because I would make the pilgrimage to Kingfield as often as I could. My brother steeped me in the history of the club – as an 8 year-old he was at the famous 4-2 victory at West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup 3rd round in 1991 (when Maltese international Tim Buzaglo scored a hat-trick) and from then on, a love affair was formed with Woking FC which has persevered through a few highs and many lows.
I was fortunate to grow up supporting Woking in their ‘golden era’ of the mid-nineties under Glenn Chapple, when they won three FA trophies, claimed numerous FA Cup giant killings (including forcing a replay away to a then Premier League Coventry City side featuring the likes of Dion Dublin, Gary McAllister, Darren Huckerby et al in 1997) and narrowly missed out on promotion to the football league on three occasions. From the early 2000s the club went through a decline which resulted in relegation to the Conference South in 2009 but in 2012 Woking were promoted back to the Football Conference where they have remained for the past 2 seasons in relative comfort.
There is something about non-league football that really appeals to the football romantic in me. Firstly, the fans are ‘real’ fans. There is none of the football tourism that regularly occurs in the Premier League. They are there because they want to be there. Secondly, because of this, the expectations are quite low; because your team is playing at a relatively low level the whole experience is somehow more rewarding. It is almost as if any success is a bonus. Those one or two moments when your team delivers that bit of quality makes everything worthwhile. I have been to many Premier League matchers where the standard of football has been infinitely better but that has, for me at least, not resulted in an entertaining 90 minutes.
It was therefore with great pleasure that my brother and I made our first journey of the season down to Kingfield to see a 7th placed Woking take on high flyers Bristol Rovers. We paid our £15 ticket price (admittedly expensive for the Conference but at least I know that my money will help the club directly rather than pay some foreign import’s exorbitant salary or go straight into an oligarch’s bank account) and headed for the obligatory burger stand.
The club had sold out of programmes which, whilst a tad irritating, meant that there would be a healthy crowd in attendance (out of a crowd of 4,000, Bristol Rovers brought 1800 travelling fans, a staggering statistic for a Conference fixture). Eschewing the comfort of the modern(ish) Leslie Gosden stand (in a bid to satisfy Football League stadium regulations Woking built an all-seater stand to raise the ground capacity to just over 6,000 in the late 90s) we stood behind the goal in the Kingfield Road end – a fairly dilapidated structure oozing charm and tradition – just how I like it.
So what about the match itself? As you would expect from a Football Conference fixture there was plenty of enthusiasm from both sides. What is apparent is that physically, the players are at least at the same level as their counterparts from League Two and maybe even League One. However the vision, awareness and technique, or lack of it, is what separates the league teams from the Conference sides. Often players would see a pass but just don’t possess the requisite ability to deliver those passes. A lot of the match was played in the middle third of the pitch and while players did look comfortable on the ball, the final killer pass was notable by its absence. Woking’s Josh Payne was the driving force from midfield and never to shirked a tackle – a refreshing sight given that the Premier League has almost become a non-contact sport these days. He had the Cards’ best chance of the half, a shot from inside the area with the outside of the boot which just drifted past Will Puddy’s post in the Rovers’ goal. Bristol’s lively number 10, Matt Taylor did actually have the ball in the net at the end of the first half but it was ruled out for a rather harsh off-side.
The 2nd half followed much the same pattern of the first half – Bristol Rovers looking the more threatening without properly testing Jake Cole between the sticks. Both defences were nigh-on impregnable with centre-backs Joe McNerney for Woking and Rovers’ Mark McChrystal particularly impressive. They would certainly not look out of place further up the footballing ladder. Jermaine Easter, who once scored against Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final for Wycombe Wanderers, came on for Bristol but contributed relatively little.
Both sides failed to convert chances from promising positions in the closing moments and the 0-0 scoreline at the final whistle was probably a fair result for both sides. Despite the lack of goals and Rovers’ manager Darrell Clarke calling the match ‘a dull 0-0’, in reality it was far from it. The commitment from both teams was commendable and whilst there was little in terms of goalmouth action, my eyes were constantly glued to the pitch. The passionate home support, who never stopped singing, made for a wonderful atmosphere and I went home with a warm glow in my soul, convinced that lower-league football is in rude health: if you need any more evidence, just look at the giant-killings in the FA Cup this weekend.
I would wholeheartedly encourage you to get down to your local Conference Premier or Southern/Northern Conference side and lend your support. Not only would your admission money significantly help a side that actually needs financial assistance, I assure you that you would enjoy yourself, even if the football is of Premier League or Championship standard. The whole ‘real football’ match day experience is, for me at least, superior to that of the Premier League. So get down to your Hyde AFC, your AFC Telford, your Farnborough Town and even your Aldershot Town. Your local team needs and deserves your support.
photocredit: Woking FC club photographer David Holmes