While labelling myself as a fan of Curzon Ashton, I have a complete obsession with groundhopping, and not enough funds to even consider trying to tick off the 92, so traipsing around non-league grounds, and indeed non-league football has become something of an obsession. And frankly, those that only go and watch their Premier League team are missing out.
Whether its the dizzying heights of the National League or the hungover scratched together teams, there is a charm to non-league that you just won’t find in the professional leagues.
No one in the history of Premier League football has ever turned to their companion and say “that number nine collects my bins, no really he does,” as I once overheard at a game. Nor has there ever been an announcement asking if the crowd has someone holding a referees licence in it, as I have seen happen twice at the same ground. Finally, my favourite ever was a South West London based team tweeting that their game was cancelled as they had no keeper, as their only goalie “Dave” had been kicked out by his wife “again.”
Getting to the grounds is often an adventure, and you find them, tucked away down terraced streets, or strangely, at Swinton FC, through the carpark of a funeral parlour, and Hyde in the carpark of a leisure centre. The excitement about the thought of a trip to Stalybridge Celtic, and the respective train station having a nigh on famous pub inside it, only to then realise Bower Fold is absolutely nowhere near the train station at all, and all of Stalybridge appears to be an enormous hill.
And when you get to the ground themselves you are in for a treat, bars that are more like real pubs at Guiseley AFC and Farsley Celtic, the odd characteristics like Salford’s sloping pitch, the bathroom facilities basically in sheds. And often a mishmash of stands built decades apart that has a charm that the higher leagues with concrete bowls of the edge of towns will never have.
The football is fast and physical, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a boring game. I saw two South Shields players sent off for entirely unrelated incidents in the space of 2 minutes, and when you get to the lower and Sunday leagues you are guaranteed more goals than you could imagine. I met someone once who played in a Greater Manchester league who claimed there was a team in their league with a goal difference of over -100, and they weren’t even bottom.
It’s also affordable, you can go and watch Maine Road FC, get in get a programme, a pie and a pint for little over a tenner. And the ground is full of characters with stories to tell, people at Stockport County with their tales of glory days, people at West Didsbury and Chorlton with their dogs.
Some of the clubs have incredible stories such as Rushden & Diamonds, rising from the flames following expulsion from missing a FA deadline, or Dulwich Hamlets dogged determination to continue despite the best efforts of their awful landlords.
Several of the clubs are staffed exclusively on match days by volunteers, with a real passion for their club and local area. Which, when standing at a freezing Hurst Cross watching Ashton United v Curzon Ashton on new years day I had an inordinate amount of respect for. There is a sign in the bar at FC United saying “Consider yourself part of the family.” And perhaps therein lies the very heart of non league for me; it’s accessible, the player hitting in three goals isn’t going to be driving home in a car that is worth more than the average Manchester House, the manager isn’t full time, you’ll see the same members of the crowd in the exact same spot week in week out and game after game, it doesn’t cost as much as a minibreak to Prague to take your family and while you’ll probably not be watching the next Jamie Vardy or Stuart Pearce, who both rose from the non league ranks rather than through academies, get yourself down to watch your local team, you’ll likely love it.