If you’ve never dipped your toe in the football pool below the upper echelons of the game, then frankly you are missing out on a true football experience. Because in pretty much every town, every village, and every borough of every city, there is a non-league team plying its trade week in week out. They may only play in front of a handful of people, but they are often at the very heart of the communities they play in, and offer supporters an opportunity to get far closer to their club than any oligarch-funded, stock-market listed behemoth in the Premier League ever will.
This is what Non-League Day is all about. Offering fans of Premier and Football League teams an opportunity to experience non-league football, provide some support for their local team, and perhaps discover a love for a different type of football.
Non-League is a relatively new initiative after being set up in 2010 by James Doe, a fan of Queens Park Rangers FC, then in the Championship, who was inspired by a pre-season friendly visit to Tavistock AFC, a Devon-based team who play in the South West Peninsula League Division One East in step 7 of the National League System.
Having initially set up the idea as a social media experiment amongst his friends, the idea has snowballed after being jumped on by those looking to protect and promote grassroots football in England. It is now a high profile annual event and has the backing of the Football Association, the Premier League, the Football League, MPs, the media, charities, and various celebrities.
It is run as a non-profit, volunteer initiative and takes place once a season, on a date to coincide with an international break and therefore when there are no Premier League or Championship fixtures taking place.
It is also endorsed by non-league clubs themselves who will often use National Non-League Day as an opportunity to secure some much needed local publicity, and attract new supporters with match day offers and special promotions.
Why would I want to watch non-league football?
Firstly to be clear, if fans go along to a non-league game expecting to see a level of football which compares to their Premier League team then they are obviously going to come away disappointed. From a purely football perspective you must go into it with realistic expectations.
But having said, for all the non-league hit-and-hope merchants there undoubtedly are, there are also a lot of sides that play some neat, tidy, and exciting football, and you are just as likely to come away from a game pleasantly surprised at the level of play, than unimpressed.
But more importantly, there are other aspects to the experience which will always surpass the match day experience at a Premier League side.
Firstly there is preserving the traditional values of some of these historic clubs, which have been at the centre of their communities for often more than 100 years, and which have maybe in the dim and distant past had a proud history which many supporters might be unaware of.
Perhaps you might go to see Sheffield FC, officially the oldest club in the world as recognised by FIFA, or Maidenhead United, who on National Non-League Day this year marked their ground, York Road, being officially declared the oldest ground in the country in continuous use, with the unveiling of a blue plaque.
Many clubs have a range of youth teams and money taken at the turnstiles goes into offering young kids from your area a chance to play football, and who knows, get an opportunity for that big break higher up the pyramid.
Overall though, the most appealing draw to National Non-League Day is the simple pleasures of watching football as it is meant to be watched. Ticket prices are reasonable, matches kick off at 3pm on a Saturday, you can stand on the terraces, you can drink a pint of beer or two while watching, and you can chat to the guy stood next to you who may have been coming here for 40 years and will no doubt have some tales to tell. If you are so inclined you can yell at the ref, and be pretty sure he can hear you, and afterwards you can go into the clubhouse and chat about the game over a few more beers with the players and the managers.
Non-League Day Specials:
Many non-league sides will look to do something extra to entice a few more supporters through the turnstiles on National Non-League Day. Some of the highlights include:
- Bungay Town, of the Anglian Combination League Division Two offered a free punnet of mushrooms to supporters last year, and doubled their attendance from 50 to 100 people.
- Bexhill, of the Sussex County Division Two offered free entry to anyone who came along to their game dressed as a pirate.
- Sheerwater, of the Cherry Red Records Division One offered free entry to anyone who followed them on Twitter.
- Ilkeston offered free entry for women to their game in the Evo-Stick Premier League.
- If you had attended a recent concert in the town by the Military Wives Choir, then you were entitled to free entry to Buxton’s Evo-Stick Premier League game against Blyth Spartans.
- Hendon held a morning five-a-side tournament with all participants getting free entry to their afternoon Isthmian League game against Leiston.
If you want to find out more about National Non-League Day, you can visit the official National Non-League Day website which includes a tool to find your nearest non-league game.
More details can also be found on the Football Association website.