Non-league football: Is the romance dying?


Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has become a behemoth of an entity. The money flooding through the upper reaches of the game, in particular, has ensured that the game’s landscape has changed immeasurably and permanently in many ways. While a lot of the changes such as stadium comfort and safety have been for the benefit of the game in general, and supporters in particular, the monetisation of the game has also led to a degree of disillusionment amongst large swathes of the footballing public.

An oft-repeated phrase of recent years is the one stating that: ‘The football bubble will burst sooner or later. The working-man is being priced out of the game and something will have to give’.

Such dire warnings have been regularly spouted over at least the past decade, but as yet the footballing juggernaut shows little or no sign of slowing down. Attendances are still steady at 97% with all Premier League tickets sold, and although subscription rates for satellite football coverage may be falling, that is probably more to do with the prevalence of on-line streaming available than anything else.

However, despite the predictions of pending armageddon so far proving to be wide of the mark, there has been a definite shift in some quarters to a return to grassroots football and the non-league game in particular.

Attendances in the National League are consistently high, and it is the exception rather than the norm for a club to average less than four figures in terms of attendance these days. Long-established

League sides dropping into the non-league ranks have found it increasingly difficult to regain their league status and yet have maintained high attendances.

Wrexham are a good case in point. In 2008, following 87 years in the Football League, the Racecourse Ground club finished rock-bottom of the Football League and thus was relegated to the then-monikered Conference Premier. Since then the club has four-times qualified for the play-offs but has fallen short each time.

Perhaps in times gone by more of Wrexham’s support may have deserted the club in favour of the relatively near Premier League football on offer in Merseyside and other localities, but the costs and difficulties involved in obtaining tickets along with travelling expenses have probably benefited Wrexham and enabled them to maintain their hard-core support.

The same or similar could be said of several other clubs that might have otherwise have lost a lot of fans upon relegation from the league. Other good examples are Tranmere and Stockport, who had they lost league status in the 1970s or ’80s instead of in 2015 and 2011 respectively would have found it very difficult to realistically maintain a full-time playing staff or to challenge for their places back in the Football League.

As it is, most of the sides in the National League are full-time with their players and staff training as often as Football League sides. The few clubs that elect to stay part-time, therefore, find themselves at an immediate disadvantage.

It is said that the non-league game provides an earthiness and a feel to it missing from the top levels of the game. Gone are the days when a football fan can wake up on a Saturday morning, scan the newspaper for a list of, say, London top-flight clubs playing at home, and decide on a whim to take in such a match by paying on the gate and then standing on the terraces. Those days are not only long gone, but are not likely to be returning any time soon, if ever.

The non-league scene still offers up this option for the die-hards and that is possibly one reason for its rising popularity.

However, even at this level money is becoming more and more important and perhaps some of the romance of non-league football is being lost. As mentioned, the majority of sides decide to maintain full-time squads and so are gambling on staying competitive and making it into the Football League or regaining a lost place. This means that ticket prices are rising and the average price to watch a game in the National League (without concessions) is in advance of 15 quid per game.

What clubs are doing more often now, though, is offering discounted season tickets. Some clubs are offering season tickets for as little as 250 pounds or thereabouts in an effort to get the money upfront and therefore be able to plan their playing budgets better.

Clubs at National League and below level have also become attractive propositions for those looking to get involved financially in the football world, either at corporate or individual level. Recent years have seen sizable investments in clubs such as Salford City, Forest Green Rovers, and AFC Fylde, and as a result, these clubs have been able to progress through the footballing pyramid at a rapid pace. Critics, however, say that these clubs are doing little more than attempting to buy a place in the Football League and there is perhaps a case to answer here.

The past two decades or so has seen many clubs chasing the dream of league football thanks to the largesse of a local benefactor only to eventually crash and burn when either their money or levels of interest start to wane. Scarborough and Rushden and Diamonds are two such clubs that failed to last the course financially and have gone out of business. There have been others.

The clubs who can afford to chase the dream can also afford to pay top wages for players. This results in anomalies whereby players who are coming into the peak seasons of their career are dropping down two or three divisions in order to get a bigger pay packet. Is this in keeping with the ‘earthiness’ of non-league football?

If we look a little closer at Salford City and their progress over the past few seasons since they were bought by Peter Lim and the majority of the ‘Class of ’92’, we will see that the club has changed in all recognition. While some may see their rise up the pyramid with four promotions in five years as romantic, I would contend that under the circumstances it is nothing of the sort.

Some would also say that the true Salford fans, the ones who have been going to watch their club for years before Gaz Nev and his mates turned up, must be delighted at the prospect of watching league football from this weekend onwards at what is to all tense and purposes a shiny new stadium. Again, I would contend to the contrary. It is these 2 or 300 hundred die-hards who have had their club ripped from them whether they wanted it or not.

The financial backing at Salford City is such that striker Adam Rooney was persuaded to swap the Scottish Premier League with Aberdeen for the fifth tier of English football in the summer of 2018.

Similarily, Billericay Town, then a further two divisions lower than the National League, were paying huge salaries to players such as Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky, who dropped four levels from Gillingham, to appear for the Essex non-leaguers in the 2016-17 season.

In interviews, the ‘Class of ’92’ have oft-stated that they feel a connection with Salford and so that is why they have invested both money and time in the club. That might be a fair enough point, but others have pointed out that the Nevilles supposedly grew up supporting Bury Town and if anyone could benefit from their generosity at this point it is likely to be the Giggs Lane club.

There have been calls, most recently from Nigel Clough, for the Premier League and its clubs to ‘bailout’ Bury. The thinking, presumably, being that there is enough money awash in the higher echelons of the game to ensure smaller clubs are not put under pressure like this and end up going to the wall. However, is such a scenario the answer? Is it even fair? Bury signed good players last season which they must have known they couldn’t afford to pay, and in doing so achieved promotion to League One. Why should they now benefit from the generosity of others?

Perhaps the further one goes down the non-league pyramid, the more likely one is to discover the true spirit of the grassroots game still exists, but although it may be a curmudgeonly bleak view to take, I feel commercialisation and monetarism is beginning to have an ever-widening reach on the game and that can’t be a good thing.