It’s (almost) come home

Ring the bells, dance in the street and rejoice. Non league football is admitting fans – albeit at reduced numbers and with social distancing measures in place. In one small way football has come home.

The incumbent Tory government has got football very wrong, very often. Since the Covid pandemic kicked off we have had; Matt Hancock, the world’s smarmiest prick (Undercurrent Awards 2020) scapegoating players into paying for his party’s fuck ups, elite competitions being rushed back to appease sponsors, non league teams being left to rot without adequate financial support, the entire football pyramid beging slapped with a blanket support ban, and then this later being reversed because someone pointed out that Manchester United and Peacehaven FC are quite different. 

It has been, for lack of a better term, a total shitshow.

But now it appears that some degree of reason (read: pressure from the public) has prevailed and non league clubs have been able to readmit fans to their new socially-distanced grounds.

As one would expect some people are rather happy about this.

“Yeah, I’m absolutely buzzing about it,” commented Josh Golsby, a  pan-Sussex non league aficionado. “It has been a really tough time for a lot of clubs, especially at the levels where they’re paying players but not generating income, that has made it an anxious time heading into the new season. I’m more than happy to go back to a football ground, I can’t wait.”

Such sentiment was echoed by Lens from the Eastbourne Town fan group, Pier Pressure.

“I can say it is something I am (cautiously) chuffed about! I’ve been following the social media campaign to get fans back into non league football as of late and in the last week you could just feel the pressure was about to lead to a change.”

The safety of ground staff, players and fans are obviously paramount to clubs, but given the fact that we can all go get leathered in beer gardens, participate in the Tesco Royal Rumble every time we go to get a tin of beans and even go on bloody holiday, one would have thought that going to a sparsely populated (sorry Lewes) outdoor stadium wouldn’t be an issue.

“It’s probably quite a safe environment. If you can have 200 people down the toilet roll aisle in Asda, why not have 200 people spread out in a field watching a match?” Golsby questioned.

To understand the difference between 80,000 people at Wembley and 150 at The Dripping Pan would take the average person around 15 seconds on Google, but alas, such seemed far too difficult for six-figure Tory policy makers, the poor souls.

“The level of non league I commonly attend feels like a fairly ideal type of outdoor situation where fans can go and watch sport safely in the current environment,” said Lens.

“From attending The Saffrons regularly I feel that social distancing can be safely adhered to, especially when considering capacity limits that are part of the plan for non league football’s reopening. It just needs both fans and clubs on board to work successfully.”

Yet for all the hurdles fans are coming back to non league and clubs have been working flat out to ease the transition.

“I know at the National League level, the clubs were asked to prepare a plan to take 15 percent capacity crowds and that’s been ongoing for a few weeks. My dad is a director and now Covid officer at Weymouth FC in the National League and they’ve been working really hard to get a plan in place. I hope all teams can organise something that works for them and their crowds, I’d hate for there to be a spike in cases and for non league football to be used as a scapegoat,” said Golsby.

Whilst the thought of being allowed back into the terraces is enough to warm our cold dead hearts, the return of fans will also provide a vital economic lifeline to struggling clubs. Completely and utterly failed by the “trickle down” structure of the English football pyramid, far too many non league teams have been left facing oblivion – many only staving off darkness through the wonderful dedication of their local communities and volunteers.

“All things considered, it very much feels that the whole of non league has been treated as a homogenous whole, when in fact it covers a massive spectrum of levels from the very base of grassroots and up,” commented Lens. “The closer you get to the National League, there is without doubt a debate to have on whether it’s safe to have crowds in their thousands and this is why capacities will be limited for the time being. This feels safe to me and the right way forward, as it was becoming far too common to hear about non-league clubs folding recently.”

Golsby added: “The economics of non-league football are always underestimated. There’s so much cost and expenditure in running a team and maintaining a stadium and to do all that with no fans is impossible for a lot of clubs. Having fans back, even if at a limited capacity, can help to repair the economic damage they’ve encountered this year.”

Whilst the economic necessity of the reopening cannot be overstated, it is – as it always should be – all about the fans. Football will always be about more than 22 lads chasing a ball.

It is a refuge at the end of a week of graft, it is a centrepoint of local areas and it is a sense of belonging for those in attendance. The intangibility of this can mean that it often goes overlooked, but for those that have experienced the camaraderie of digging the lino out as a collective, there is no doubt of its importance.

“I’ve grown up an Everton fan, but I’ve always watched Non-League football, at Weymouth as a child, now at Whitehawk, Southwick, Worthing, wherever really. There’s such a sense of community in all non-league clubs, that I suppose boils down to the involvement of volunteers. The volunteers bridge the gap between the players and the public,” said Golsby.

“There’s also a massive social aspect to it. I know lots of people who’s best friends, partners or spouses are people they’ve met on the terraces, and equally some of my best friends are too. Personally, I’ve struggled without it. The routine of going to a game on Saturday afternoon, but also the release of shouting at the lino and having a pint with the boys in the sun. Non-league is the best and I’m glad it’s back.”

A boyhood Villa fan, Lens has found a similar sense of collective belonging at Eastbourne Town.

“I still love Villa and get to the odd match when I can, but with Town you’re supporting local grassroots football and for me it fills the hole in my football heart. It’s an entirely different experience to what Premier League football has become and in many ways it’s even better. Going to matches and being part of Pier Pressure has become the centre point of my social life.

“I’ve made some great friendships through going down to matches and I can’t wait to get started again. Meet mates, have a drink and chat some shit. It’s more than the football. It’s the whole experience of a Saturday (or under the floodlights in the week). Nothing beats it! I should also add how great this can be for our mental well-being. This shouldn’t be ignored.

“Whilst it is a cliché, so many non-league clubs are truly pillars of the community. Especially in smaller towns and villages. These clubs only stay alive through volunteers and extended ‘family’ devoting their time through a sheer love for football, their club and the local community.

We can’t understate how sincerely important these clubs are. Big up the NHS and long live non-league football.”