The Non-League Experience
If you ask an English football fan what they remember from the early noughties, they'll probably think David Beckham and Thierry Henry. My memories, however, are quite different.
My football diet growing up consisted of Barnet FC's Mad Dog Martin Allen (a colourful managerial character in the lower echelons of English football) and Guiliano Grazioli. Gracing the sloping pitch of Underhill in the leafy northern suburb of London, these two combined forces to dominate the non-league scene for years.
A failed attempt at promotion in the playoffs to Shrewsbury was quickly forgotten as we ran riot the following season, winning the old Conference at a canter. That season will live long in my memory, as I travelled around the country watching the bees stun the opposition.
I may have been simply getting lost in the moment, aged 14, but that experience convinced me that it's not all about the flashy clean and filthy rich top division. When my friends asked me at the time who I supported, I was met with funny looks and something along the lines of 'why do you support them? They're rubbish'. The responses were generally elitist and close-minded. Over time I realised their point was less to do with Barnet per se and more to do with the fact that I didn't support a top Premier League club. They simply couldn't fathom that football life outside the top clubs existed.
Back in the old East Terrace of Underhill. I'm there on the right standing on the barrier
Granted, you've got your pick of top quality sides in the capital. I'd even argue that no where on the planet matches London in terms of football club infrastructure, but still, I connected to my little old local club and that was that.
If you're ever been to a non-league game you'll notice the difference straight away. The grounds, ranging from the unique (Woking) to the drab (Ebbsfleet United). You'd be lucky to have 50% capacity and the football at times has a lot to be desired yet somehow when you look a little deeper you notice the authentic connection these clubs have with their supporters.
If this picture doesn't sum up non-league, I don't know what does (Aldershot away)
As I return to Barnet's ground (no longer Underhill but now The Hive), I notice old faces from the terraces. Not necessarily by name but at the very minimum, a nod will come your way. As you're smaller in numbers, it feels like it somehow matters more. You're not simply another number on a Premier League's club email database but a vital part of the club ecosystem. Without TV revenues and huge commercial deals, smaller clubs rely more so on match day revenue , with every penny counting. Every match is an experience and I've bumped into Barnet's chairman Tony Kleanthous quite a few times post game. He's always happy to have a chat and take on feedback from fans. I doubt you'd bump into Ed Woodward after a match.
Talking of United, their counter club FC United is a great example of fans feeling disconnected and lost to their modern club. By splintering off and starting further down the pecking line, they've re-engaged thousands of fans to their cause.
In the Bees Terrace at The Hive. The more atmospheric part of the ground
Every away game in the non-league feels like an opportunity to discover a untapped spot in England, and sometimes Wales. Away from the Sky cameras and normally tucked away behind terraced housing or an industrial site, you enter a somewhat forgotten but special place. You'll still be able to find a burger van by the corner flag and in most cases, mingle in the club bar before or after the game with the home fans without any hint of tension but instead a shared comradery and love of the game.
There's also a charm that comes with non-league football. It slightly feels like it's stuck in time and hasn't caught up with the sanitised and plastic feel of Premier League experiences. There normally aren’t giant LED screens around the ground actively trying to distract you at every opportunity, nor is there a tourist fans with their phones out at every turn. Standing is another one, with most non-league grounds having the option to watch the game upright, as it should be (in my opinion).
The above is not to say you can't watch top tier football, I do so myself regularly and have been fortunate to see many top flight games across Europe. The point of this article is to help open people's eyes to the alternative. There is another world of football out there, one that's more humble and authentic. Less glitz and more grit. If you've got a local club near you that you might have never visited (or it's been a while), why not give them a go? You might enjoy it*.