What is Non-League?


A decade ago this would have been a relatively easy question to answer but today the lines are now so blurred perhaps it is time we dropped the phrase all together. Non-League used to refer to any team that was not part of the Football League but with the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the situation started to change.

It would have been unheard of to find a full-time side below the Football League but today, certainly at Step 5 or National League, most sides will be full-time and thus classed as professional players. So, another loose definition of the “amateur game” is out of date. In fact, there are teams at Step 6 who are now full-time, such has the game changed.

What brought this question to a head was the “debate” over Social Media last week between Gary Neville, one of the co-owners of Salford City and Accrington Stanley’s Chairman, Andy Holt, over the signing of Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney by Neville’s club.

Salford City’s rise through the leagues has been impressive – just over a decade ago they were playing in the North-West Counties League (Step 9). Then came the “Class of ‘92” and their billionaire friend, Peter Lim, and invested heavily into the squad and the infrastructure and the club hasn’t looked back, taking their place in the National League this season for the first time. There’s nothing new in a club getting significant investment and rising through the leagues, although in most cases it does end in tears. I’m not sure the risks of the owners walking away is anywhere near as high at Salford City, but it has caused some bitterness and rivalry from other clubs.

Salford’s signing of Rooney has certainly set a new bar though for the “Non-League” game. The Irishman swapped the promise of Europa League football with Aberdeen for the chance to play in the FA Trophy with Salford City, oh and the small matter of a reputed £4,000 per week – or in Lewes FC speak, 150% of our weekly playing budget.

Ah yes, the playing budget. Rooney’s transfer set up a war of words between Neville and Holt, with the Accrington Stanley chairman happy to reveal his annual playing budget, but when pushed, Neville wouldn’t reveal the Salford City one, saying “You think I’m going to disclose my wages on here?” (Twitter). Why not? Why can’t clubs all be transparent with their wages?

Last season we saw significant amounts of “investment” at Step 7, with Billericay Town signing players such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky. Whilst the owner/manager (until he sacked himself, then re-appointed himself) claimed his wage bill was nothing like the amounts being bandied around the media, they were still eye-watering in terms of the level Billericay Town were playing at, and probably on a par with the amounts Holt claimed Accrington Stanley, now an EFL One club, paid.

This season Step 5 of the English Football Pyramid, the National League, contains 11 clubs who have played in the English Football League, plus two (Salford City and Ebbsfleet United) with significantly wealthy owners. It would be an insult to call this Non-League anymore as many of these clubs have facilities and resources that some EFL clubs could only dream of.

Money does not always buy success, but it certainly gives you a big head-start and this season few would bet against Salford City being one of the main challengers for promotion to the Football League. They will face some still opposition from the likes of Chesterfield, Barnet and Leyton Orient, all who are desperate to regain their Football League status.

Two leagues below Salford City, the Rooks will take their place back in Step 7, the Isthmian League Premier Division, after two seasons at Step 8. We led the Isthmian South division for three-quarters of the season on a budget per week of half an Adam Rooney, winning promotion with four games to spare. We’ve managed to find a modest increase in the playing budget for manager Darren Freeman and we believe we have a squad that can compete rather than struggle. But the gulf between Step 7 and Step 6 is huge in terms of finances and if we were to gain promotion, we would be ill-equipped at the moment to match any of the clubs at the National League South level. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us giving it a go!

So, should we stop referring to our game as Non-League? Whilst we all understand what we mean when we say it, we are in a structure, the ‘pyramid’, that gives us a path to promotion all the way to the Premier League (we can but dream). We aren’t grass-roots either. The recent debate about the sale of Wembley and the plan to invest millions in ‘grass-roots football’ may have got us excited that some of that cash could come our way, but grass-roots means just that – the amateur game in its purest sense where facilities today in many instances are an embarrassment to our National Game.

For now, I don’t think we have any option but to refer to ourselves as being part of the Non-League game. We all know where we stand, and even if clubs like Salford City want to think and act as if they are already in the Football League, then let them. We will still stand on the Terry Parris Terrace next season, beer in hand and marvel at the part-time players, the volunteers and the beauty of the game we call Non-League.

Championship reputation


There can’t be many fans who dislike Fulham.  OK, perhaps apart from Queens Park Rangers fans and a smattering of Chelsea supporters, although the vast majority of the “new blues” probably have no idea where their nearest neighbours actually play.  The club has tried to retain a sense of history and tradition whilst a maelstrom of off the field activities have directly impacted on the field performances.  But coming into the new 2016/17 Football League season (hashtag EFL for those down with the kids) there was a sense of optimism that things could be different this term.

unnamedSome things never change though as this Friday night season opener proved:-

  1. Despite the travel logistics, Sky felt that it was justifiable in ensuring that Newcastle fans couldn’t get back to Tyneside after the game by public transport;
  2. Despite point 1, Newcastle still filled the whole of the Putney End;
  3. The only beer you could get in the ground was Carlsberg;
  4. At the age of 35 Scott Parker is still as mobile as he was when he joined West Ham back in 2007;
  5. The police still haven’t worked out how to manage the crowds at Putney Bridge tube station;

Prior to the game, which had seen an eventful tube journey where football fans had been called into action to prevent a fight on the train between a heavily pregnant woman and a young “lady” with attitude who felt it was her right to stand blocking the doors “to get some air”, I chatted with a member of Fulham’s new marketing team.  It seems that owner Shahid Khan was now in action not words mode and wanted to press ahead with an ambitious development of the Riverside Stand that would see it built up and back into the Thames, supported by a man-made island.  Fans would then be literally shipped into the ground.  Not the craziest plan I’ve heard and actually one that would have been more than ideal for The Boleyn Ground (swap River Thames for access road leading to bus garage).  The current capacity of just under 26,000 with limited space for corporate hospitality simply does not allow the club to increase the ever-important match day revenues.

By retaining Benitez, a significant number of players from last year and boosting the squad with some new signings, the bookies unsurprisingly have made Newcastle favourites for an immediate return. From experience of West Ham’s foray’s into the Championship you know that the novelty of visiting grounds you haven’t been to in a while soon rubs off when you are losing though.

unnamed (3)The atmosphere had been turned up at the Cottage as kick off approached.  Newcastle were being backed by 6,000 fans, an outstanding achievement considering the kick off time and distance.  Fulham fans in the Stevenage Road stand were making quite a din themselves, fueled by those card clappers and the acoustics of the metal roof.  One noticeable fact was the lack of home fans wearing replica shirts.  Perhaps I’d just been accustomed to seeing virtually every fan in one during the European Championships or that the new ones, complete with the statement “VisitFlorida” on the front weren’t yet on sale.

Fulham 1 Newcastle United 0 – Craven Cottage – Friday 5th August 2016
After 10 minutes of this game I turned to Tall Tom and pointed out the Newcastle game plan.  “Every time the right back gets the ball he hits it diagonally behind the Fulham left back”.  I hadn’t even finished the sentence before another ball was hoofed up field for Perez to chase.  On this occasion he did earn a free-kick on the edge of the box as Odoi pushed him over but if we could see their tactic from the stands so quickly then I’d have hoped Fulham boss Slaviša Jokanović (described by Wikipedia as a “physical player”) would have too.

unnamed (1)The game was played at a good pace although neither team seemed willing to progress further than the edge of the penalty area.  Newcastle should have had a penalty when Ritchie’s cross is punched away for a corner by Tunnicliffe.  New season, better technology, same basic decisions being missed.  Ten minutes later Fulham went ahead when Matt Smith rose the highest to head home a corner.  Men on the posts? That’s so 2015/16.

The second half saw more of the same from both teams.  Newcastle’s fans seemed to be permanently on edge every time the ball was played towards their goal, whilst the Fulham back line opted for a no-nonsense approach in defending.  They had another decent shout for a penalty when a last-minute shot appeared to hit a Fulham arm but rarely threatened the home team’s goal.  I can only assume they have neglected to work on set pieces in the pre-season based on the efforts of Perez and Shelvey (or as Sky refered to him “England’s Jonjo Shelvey” which still gives me hope of an international call up).

Full time saw Benitez stride purposefully towards the referee although the Spaniard kept his dignity and simply shook hands.  He had a right to feel aggrieved but this would have been a harsh lesson for him and the team.   The Championship is a brutal league where pre-season odds and reputations count for nothing.  Teams will raise their game at home to Newcastle and will park the bus at St James’ Park.

For the thousands of Fulham fans disappearing into the London night the dreams of a return to the promised land may just remain a little while longer.