Last March, after really diving in head first into the non league game, I took stock of the game I had come to watch week in week out and put pen to paper (well, finger to laptop) and wrote a nine-point blue print for the future of Non League football. Whilst there is so much good in the game at this level, there are still aspects that make no sense. We all know that football authorities and logic have never gone hand in hand so I decided to try and do something about it. I picked 9 areas where I saw inequality and tried to explain why. In summary, the points are listed below (you can read them in more detail here, here and here):-
- Create partnerships between Premier/Football League clubs and local Non League clubs
- Play the county cup competitions at the end of the season
- Flexibility on when the leagues end
- All non league clubs to offer free entry to Under 16s
- Allow alcohol to be drunk on the terraces
- Play the FA Trophy and Vase as a double header on the same day at Wembley Stadium
- Make Non League Day a permanent feature in the calendar
- Alleviate the financial catch 22 of promotion
- Scrap the ground grading farce
The series was very well received and widely discussed. In the course of the few weeks after publication I was asked to appear on the Non League show and BBC 5 Live among others. The articles were published in dozens of club programmes up and down the country. A copy of the blue print in summary for was sent to the Football Association, the Football League and the Football Conference.
So a year on and what has happened? Well firstly not one of those three footballing “authorities” replied to my communication. NOT ONE. That is how much they care about the game. Not even a “yes you make some good points, but….”. And without their backing, what will the lower leagues do about it? Nothing – that is what.
This season has been an even more of an eye opener to me. Joining the board of a non league club has enabled me to understand more of what is right and what is wrong with our grass roots game. I am able to freely talk to my counterparts at other clubs, and understand their pain. All of my nine points are as valid today, with further insight, as they were 13 months ago.
The good news is that it seems a couple of these are beginning to gain momentum. The second Non League Day back in September was a success, with more clubs getting involved and more promotion from Football League and Premier League clubs. James Doe and Mike Bayly are continuing to look at how they can make the event even bigger and better next season and most clubs now see this is a great cause to get behind.
Visiting Ryman Premier League clubs this season with Lewes I have seen first hand the number of deals they are trying to get fans in. A fair number are giving half price admission to season ticket holders of ANY other clubs (apart from the ones that are playing) which combined with a promotion by local Football League sides has a real benefit for clubs. Free admission for under 12’s is common place now at this level, and many also raise this to under 16 year olds. I was staggered at the end of last season to see that Boreham Wood FC charged SIX POUNDS for an under 16 admission. On the day we visited we counted two children in the ground and they were both with Lewes. The attendance that day? Less than 250.
The relatively mild winter has not had the fixture congestion issue this season that we have seen in the previous years, but still most Leagues will be finished by the first weekend in May. Again, ridiculously early in my opinion. Some clubs again are heavily penalised for success in cup competitions. East Thurrock United in the Ryman Premier League have played over 20 cup games this season yet still have to shoe-horn in their league games by the end of April. Wealdstone reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy as well as the final of the Middlesex Senior Cup. Their reward? They have to play 18 games in March and April.
On the weekend of the 12th and 13th May Wembley Stadium will host the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals. WHY? Why do you need to play these games on different days. With all due respect to Dunston UTS and West Auckland Town, why do they need to have the whole stadium for their game? Between them they average less than 500 for league games, yet they will be playing in a 90,000 capacity stadium. I am not begruding them their day out in the sun, but when you think that Newport County and York City will fill at most half of Wembley the day before, surely it makes financial and logistical sense to play both games on one day? Dare I also mention that “hopper” word as well? Two games, one day, one ticket = hoppers paradise.
In terms of the rest of the points, nothing new has occurred and I doubt if anything will. Again on this season’s travels it is interesting to see which clubs allow alcohol to be drunk and which don’t. AFC Hornchurch allow it on the terrace at their Hornchurch Stadium ground, yet just a few miles down the road at Aveley, where crowds struggle to break three figures, it is not allowed. A few miles further east at Tilbury it is an “ejectable” offence, but nothing was done to allow fans to bring in their own cans and drink them. Some of this is down to local licencing authorities, but overall there is a fear that by allowing clubs to serve beer it will turn into a scene from the film the 300.
So what should the “manifesto” look like today? Well, in true Radio 1 Chart Show style we will reveal them in the coming weeks, running down from 10 to 1. And this year it wont just be my views. I have recruited some of the heaviest of the heavyweight followers of the Non League game and asked for their opinions. Not just fans either. Players, managers and administrators. But these are just our opinions. Feel free to interject, throwing in suggestions of your own, which unlike our good old FA, we wont ignore.
Ready? OK, cue “Whole lotta lovin'”…