One man and his dog, players who combine their football career with a job as a mechanic, and so-called ‘grounds’ that really just constitute a mud-infested pitch in a local park. I am all too sure that you, the reader, have repeatedly heard many of the lazy stereotypes around Non-League football that are repeatedly spouted by the uninitiated.
I am an avid fan of Non-League myself. I was taken to my first game at my beloved local Non-League club Hornchurch FC (Essex) way back in 2013. I have been in love with the ‘Urchins’ ever since. Despite the myths surrounding Non-League football, it plays host to an avid and passionate fan scene, some of the most exciting football you will ever witness, and a weird and wonderful world of clubs still intrinsically connected to their traditions and local communities.
Yet, despite also being a fan of the Premier League and the top echelons of football, here are some of the reasons why I believe Non-League football to be quite possibly the greatest thing on Earth.
A common criticism that is levelled against Non-League by the nay-sayers who are quick to condemn this form of football is that the vast majority of the games are played out in front of tiny and uninterested crowds, with little atmosphere or passion present. An idea that is encapsulated in the famous saying ‘one man and his dog’.
It is certainly true that many Non-League clubs do sadly struggle to draw large numbers of fans in an age in which top-level football matches are broadcast virtually all the time on television, something that has been made all too clear to me at many of the grounds I have followed Hornchurch away at.
Nevertheless, the past few years have seen a fascinating fan scene develop around Non-League Football. A large number of clubs right down into steps seven and eight of the football pyramid are now drawing large crowds, with loud and passionate sets of fans turning their grounds into loud and passionate fortresses.
In Hornchurch’s division, the Isthmian Premier League (the seventh tier of English football), clubs such as Enfield and Aveley (as much as it pains me to say anything nice about them) possess passionate ‘ultras’ that bring the noise to their matches home and away.
While clubs such as Hastings United have an average attendance of over 1,000. Moreover, I have rarely seen an atmosphere quite as intimidating and overwhelming as that at Hornchurch’s playoff final last year – a game for which over 3,500 were in attendance – while Hornchurch also regularly take over 100 fans to away games, as many as many clubs in League Two.
It is no secret to state that football at the top level is becoming an increasingly expensive hobby to engage in. What was once the sport of the working man is progressively being turned into a highly-priced and exclusive form of entertainment.
At a Premier League game, an adult match ticket tends to cost upward of fifty pounds, a pint of beer and pie at the ground will together come to around ten pounds, while a programme can often cost as much as five pounds. Not to mention that even watching the games on television will set you back nearly one hundred pounds a month in streaming service subscription fees.
Therefore, Non-League represents an affordable, yet equally as enjoyable, alternative to the sky-high prices of the Premier League. A day out at Hornchurch FC – with a pie, pint, programme, and match ticket included – will cost a maximum of twenty pounds; and will almost certainly constitute a great time.
Another common accusation that is often made against Non-League football is the idea that it simply does not have the same gravitas, and provides the big moments in the same way as the game at the top level. This is largely a result of the players being of lower quality than those in the Premier League and Championship.
Yet while football is obviously not played at the same skill level as is seen in the Premier League. It is simply wrong and misinformed to try and state that Non-League is not as exciting.
Despite the fact that I have also followed a top-flight team in West Ham for the majority of my life, a large amount of my greatest moments watching football have come from my experiences with Hornchurch FC. From scoring three goals in twenty minutes to clinch the FA Trophy 2021, to scoring two goals in three minutes in the Isthmian League play-off semi-final against Enfield in April 2022, following Hornchurch has repeatedly provided me with enthralling footballing memories that will last me a lifetime.
There appears to be a widespread accusation amongst many sectors of football supporters that Non-League grounds are nothing but run-down, ramshackle establishments that are scarcely more built-up than your average local park. While following Hornchurch, I have certainly been to some incredibly tumbledown places – one that sticks out in the memory is Witham Town on the last day of the season in 2018, where the stands looked as though they were imminently about to collapse, and the toilets looked like something straight out of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.
It is completely wrong to class all Non-League grounds as crumbling and decrepit. In fact, Hornchurch’s division plays host to a wide array of eccentric, soulful and beautiful football grounds, the kind of which are amazing places to visit on any away day. Lewes’s ground ‘The Dripping Pan’ is built into an excavation pit that formerly housed a monastery, Canvey Island’s ground plays host to stunning views out over the Thames Estuary, while Hornchurch’s own spiritual home, ‘The Bridge’, contains a bar from which fans can look out and see every minute of action on the pitch.
Moreover, there is a great sense of community that surrounds a large number of Non-League clubs, with the fans and players being so much closer together, and they often play a key role in providing a sense of identity to their local areas. For instance, in my time following the club, I have got to know quite a few of Hornchurch’s players personally, while the club also greatly helps to bring our local community together and make us proud. As was seen through the large turnout during our trophy parade, after we won the FA Trophy in May 2021.
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