Non league football is the lifeblood of the game today, yet gets little attention from the media (apart from radio shows like the excellent BBC Non League Show or the Non League Paper). It is not in the best of shape to put it mildly. In the past year numerous clubs have gone to the wall, with not even a batting of an eye from the Premier League or the Football League. So what can we do about it? Well, we’ve got our heads together and come up with our 10 point agenda for change, our manifesto if you like. Today we launch part one covering the first three points.
1. Create standard co-operation partnership agreements between Premier League/Football League clubs and Non League teams.
Now this may seem like madness, but there is significant sense in this move as the Hyde/Manchester City model has shown. Last summer, after coming perilously close to being wound up in the High Court, Blue Square Bet South’s Hyde United signed a three year “partnership” agreement with Manchester City. City would refurbish Hyde United’s Ewen Fields ground and play their Elite Squad (aka reserve) games there and in return Hyde would lose the United and change their kit from red and white to white and blue (with a distinctly Man City-like diagonal stripe).
Nine months on and a visit to the ground does indeed show how smart it is, resplendent with perimeter boards for Etihad and Umbro. However on the field the team have continued to struggle and again this year face a tough fight against relegation. The excellent Ian King over at Twohundredpercent wrote about these odd bedfellows last year.
So that is one example of it working, although it hasn’t led to any on field success for Hyde yet, which surely would have been one of the main criteria for entering into this model? What about other clubs then? West Ham United have played reserve games at Woodside Park, Bishops Stortford for a couple of seasons now, but do not offer anymore to the Bishops than that. Wolverhampton Wanderers likewise play their reserve games at AFC Telford United’s Bucks Head ground. But do they really add value to the Non League club?
On Friday 1st April West Ham United reserves are taking on Manchester United reserves at Woodside Park. Looking at recent games played between the two you could expect familiar names such as Faubert, Winston Reid, Kovac, Boa Morte and Sears for the Hammers, plus Obertan, Bebe and Gibson for Manchester United. Potentially more stars on show than a respective Carling Cup match. So then why play the game at 2pm? Hardly going to draw a crowd is it? So what benefit do Bishops Stortford get from hosting the game? Very little as far as I can see.
So why not create more meaningful agreements between clubs? Surely there is scope for a symbiotic relationship? A few Non League clubs for instance offer a 50% reduction to season ticket holders from other clubs but it is more of a token gesture. What about if the Premier or Football League clubs offered a discount the other way? 50% off a ticket for West Ham if you were a Thurrock season ticket holder for instance? How hard would it be for a professional club to get behind their local team or teams?
Just a few weeks ago we reported the sad demise of Leyton FC, formerly of the Ryman League South. Their ground was less than a mile from Leyton Orient’s Matchroom Stadium and just over 3 miles to West Ham’s Upton Park. On days when the Hammers got 34,000, Leyton got 22 people. Surely they could have done something to help? Ilkeston Town also went to the wall earlier in the season, yet bizarrely their ground is still used by Nottingham Forest for their reserve games. There is some logic there but I am not sure where.
So here is my starter for ten on this issue. Every Premier and Football League team to “adopt” a non league team within 15 miles of their ground. Make the partnership bilateral so that it simply isn’t like a big brother patting the head of their annoying little brother. Give a little take a little. Perhaps change the colour/design of your away strip to reflect the partnership; offer half price admission to respective season ticket holders; dare I say it sell each others merchandise in the club shop (produce those half and half scarves that were popular in the 80’s such as West Ham United and Dundee United) and finally have a big pre-season friendly where the stars all play. Just little things but it would make a hell of a difference to the Non League teams.
2. Play the County Cup matches at the end of the season
Currently the bizarre rules governing county football means that for the likes of Lewes, a Sussex Senior Cup game against Shoreham takes priority over a league match against say Dartford. This leads to ridiculous fixture congestion especially in times when the weather is poor and clubs also have to try and re-arrange fixtures accordingly. Most Non League clubs play in three cup competitions – The FA Cup, the FA Trophy or Vase, depending on their level within the pyramid and then the county cups. Some teams, like Thamesmead Town somehow manage to squeeze in two county cups (London and Kent).
The influence of the counties on the clubs is still far too powerful. In fact do a simple search on the structure of the Football Association and you will find that the FA Council contains 14 Life Vice-Presidents from the county FA’s, 5 elected Vice-Presidents from the counties and then one representative from each county as a representative. Come FA Cup Final day and you can understand why such a small percentage of tickets out of the 90,000 actually go to the clubs.
In the opening rounds of the cup nobody is really interested. Let’s look at the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup this season. Thirty Two teams were accepted in the competition this year, with just Brighton & Hove Albion being the sole representative from the Football League. Just to prove how serious they were going to take it, Poyet stated at the start of the season he would only put a reserve/development squad out for the games. Round one saw 32 teams from the county leagues fight it out for a place with the 16 “best” teams in the county (including Albion as well as Eastbourne Borough, Crawley Town and Lewes).
Round two saw few crowds of more than 100 people. One game was the local derby between Shoreham and Lewes. With Lewes’s new manager Tim O’Shea keen on trying a few squad players you would have expected a reasonable crowd. 108 was the crowd, including a fair few from Lewes. Competing with Ajax v Real Madrid, Braga v Arsenal and Chelsea v Zilina on TV it was quite commendable really. But if that game was played at the END of the season, when the weather is good and there are no other distractions on TV, what would the attendance have been? Two hundred? Three? Four?
Round three saw Lewes host high flying Bognor Regis Town from the Ryman League South. Less of a distraction on this night with only Ipswich Town playing Arsenal in the Carling Cup semi-final on TV. Lewes had hosted Welling United and Eastleigh in the past ten days with crowds of 766 and 483 respectively. With reduced price admission in place a crowd of 181 was poor, although it was the second biggest crowd of the round behind the 283 at Eastbourne Borough (about 30% of their normal crowd).
Now don’t tell me that playing the competition at the end of the season isn’t possible as in late February the Sussex FA announced the Final of this year’s competition would be played at the brand new Amex Community Stadium…In mid July! Why was this a surprise? Well in mid January the very same FA had publically announced such an idea couldn’t happen as they were unhappy with the financial arrangements and delaying the final, which is usually held at Eastbourne Borough in May. So guess what changed their minds?
Sussex County Football Association chairman Peter Bentley added: “We are delighted to be invited to the Amex to play the final. It will provide a great occasion for the players and fans of the clubs who reach the final.”
All of a sudden the eight teams left in the competition start taking it seriously.
3. Be more flexible about when the league ends
Recent seasons have seen some teams playing 4 or 5 games a week due to the poor winter weather and good cup runs. Alfreton Town, in second place in the Blue Square Bet North have 7 games in hand on leaders Nuneaton due to weather and cup runs in FA Trophy and are just one point behind. Likewise in the Blue Square Bet Premier leaders Crawley Town’s reward for reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup was five games in hand on AFC Wimbledon.
Last season the Isthmian League were steadfast in their decision not to extend their season past 24th April 2010, despite the fact that teams like Wealdstone had to cram in 7 games in 14 days towards the back end of the season. They went into the period within touching distance of the Play Offs, and came out the other side falling short. A game every two days obviously has a massive impact. Another league, the Wessex League, decreed that if both clubs were in agreement they could actually simply not play the game and settle for a 0-0 draw.
The Isthmian’s official line was that the season had to finish then because:-
“The league must be completed by a certain date (24th April 2010) to enable champions to be decided, end of season play offs to take place and to allow time for the numerous other administrative tasks to take place”
So much so in fact that they took nearly two months to decide whether Borehamwood would indeed be promoted after the disgraceful incident on the pitch at the play off final versus Kingstonian that in the end saw them unpunished.
So why then is it acceptable for the Premier League and the Football League to play into mid-May then? Surely the administrative burden is similar.
So in the case of a club having a number of games cancelled due to the bad weather, they have to cram them all in in a short period of time, meaning in some cases two midweek games a week. Who is the winner in this instance? The players? I don’t think so. combining a full time job in most cases with part time football is going to put a strain on them physically and even financially if they have to take time off from their paid employment to play for their club.
What about the fans? How many can afford, in the total sense to go to three games a week? I am lucky I have an understanding wife (God bless CMF) and a daughter who loves any football, but I am not the norm. So fans will not be prepared to come out for two games during the week, and thus attendances will suffer. As attendances suffer, so too do the clubs as the gate revenue will be lower, yet their cost base will still be the same and thus putting more financial pressure on them.