NON LEAGUE DAY 2013 – A gloriously eccentric flavour of the beautiful game
James Doe is the founder of Non League Day, which takes place on the 7th September 2013. He kindly took a few moments to answer some questions about the project, which has been set up to promote that sometimes gloriously eccentric flavour of the beautiful game. Think of a supermarket brand of say, Rhubarb and Custard Ice Cream, rather than the Haagen Dazs Vanilla of the Premier League.
Far removed from the moneyed spotlights, there exists an eco-system of local community football clubs struggling to even switch on their lights. Sometimes their homes can be just a pitch with concrete fences around it. Others are small-scale attempts at grander affairs, or the remnants of a long forgotten period of football. How many of us have walked past an old relic of a football ground in our town, without actually ever having gone through the turnstiles?
There are more recently built stadiums, too – symbols of a hope for the future, or the follies of chairmen with big ideas. If you take the outdated concept of supporting your local team, that would usually be describing the nearest large town or city team. If born a few miles north or east of that footballing Gotham City, Manchester, but still within the confines of “Greater Manchester”, you are likely to be a United or a City fan.
Yet just those few miles that arch around one side of the city centre contain not only league sides such as Bury, Rochdale and Oldham Athletic – but also non-league stalwarts such as Droylsden, Ashton United, Curzon Ashton, Hyde FC, Stalybridge Celtic, Mossley AFC, Chadderton FC and Oldham Town.
That is just a very quick headcount on one section of the Greater Manchester map. SIX of those are actually within Tameside – a single borough of Greater Manchester. The teams play at various levels of the non-league system. This kind of topography is repeated throughout the country and Non League Day aims to give them a day in the sun, to possibly introduce new supporters – or at the very least a chance to boost their coffers.
The date has been chosen carefully to coincide with the international break. This offers the chance for those that support clubs in the higher echelons of the footballing pyramid to pop along to their very local, local – and sample the delights of non-league football, without interfering with their usual supporting habits. James told me a little about the idea that now appears to be taking over his life.
A MAJOR EVENT.
Whilst driving to watch his beloved Queens Park Rangers play a pre-season friendly match in Devon against Tavistock AFC in 2010, James approached the town and noticed a glut of adverts for the fixture – by the side of the road, on buses and placards.
“It struck me how big a deal the visit of QPR was to them – it was a major event.” Inside the ground, there was a heady mixture of excitement and friendliness, “Everyone was made to feel really welcome and it was obvious how the significantly increased gate receipts would go a long way to keeping the club going.”
An example of this was played out by the same two clubs a year later when, following a fire that damaged the clubhouse, the two sides met again. The proceeds from that match ensured that the building could be rebuilt. His interest piqued, James admits that as a fan of a professional club, he was a little naive about what running a non-league club could entail. He was shocked to hear of the predicament that faced his local club, Harrow Borough.
“Shortly after the Tavistock match, I was made aware of a fundraising drive to buy new bulbs for the floodlights at Harrow Borough – times must have been tough. Given the financial climate across the country, I thought that they couldn’t be the only ones, so I resolved to do something about it.” And with that, Non League Day was born.
Organisations such as the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) have got behind the initiative, helping it to grow considerably each year and also showing that there is a perceived need to preserve football at grassroots level, for the sake of the sport and our communities.
“The FSF were quick to get on board in year one.” James says, “They have given Non League Day great credibility, for which we are very grateful. It is always hard to measure accurately how successful each campaign has been because statistics are hard to get hold of but the general feeling certainly seems to be that it gets bigger every year.”
“We’ve been very lucky that big media outlets like the BBC, Sky and Talksport have all thrown their weight behind it and last year we got the backing of the Premier League for the first time too, plus a number of its biggest clubs.”
The real barometer of success must be the reaction and feedback from the actual clubs who ply their trade below the leagues, though? “The list of clubs reporting how successful the day has been is incredibly long. We have seen numerous examples of teams getting well above average attendances with some getting their highest of the season on NLD. For example, AFC Fylde recorded their highest crowd of all time on NLD, which was very pleasing.”
“Generally speaking, if we weren’t seeing these things happen and weren’t receiving good feedback then we wouldn’t bother. The Non League Day campaign takes up a lot of our time and money and if it was making no impact then that would be that.”
Only very recently, Macclesfield Town announced their infamous and ill-advised “pay to play” scheme. The offer was rightly withdrawn. In an era of the sport where the very top clubs are dealing with unprecedented finances, it is a sobering thought that most clubs below that level are having to come up with such ideas, however fanciful, just to meet day-to-day costs. James agrees that Non League Day provides a less contentious way to raise the profile of a club.
PAY WHAT YOU WANT AND OTHER OFFERS.
“NLD is increasingly becoming known for the special offers/events that are available on the day. Some offers have often prioritised newcomers over regulars and that’s not really fair, so of all the discounted admission ideas, probably the fairest and possibly most successful is the “Pay What You Want” idea. We are really trying to push that to clubs this year.
FC United of Manchester operate a similar initiative with their season tickets. Supporters are encouraged to “pay what you like”, subject to a minimum suggested figure of £90 (even this can be negotiated in some circumstances). The scheme has been extremely successful and the club have found that many supporters choose to pay well in excess of that figure.
In a parallel to the findings of FC United, the Ryman League side Wingate & Finchley decided to go with the “Pay What You Want” scheme at last year’s Non League Day. “They trebled their normal crowd and many were happy to pay the going rate of £10. Apart from that, clubs who really try and make an event of it usually do well.”
At such events you can expect coaching sessions for kids before the game, lunch deals in the clubhouse, bouncy castles, local dignitaries/celebrities putting in appearances, local charity activities – whatever it takes to create a buzz around the game.
“Last year, the big Conference South derby match between Bromley and Welling United had a lot of this and got ‘Kick It Out’ involved – it also drew a crowd nearly triple their average.” Buoyed by the reaction to Non League Day, many clubs have also pencilled in their own events on other days throughout the calendar.
“During the rest of the year we’ve seen spin off events like Northern League Day where people have tried to draw attention to clubs in a specific league. Some clubs have had special days just for themselves. The latter have been particularly successful when clubs have been threatened by financial problems or issues over their ground – Alton Town are a good example of this from two or three months ago.” (Alton Town FC are threatened with eviction from their Anstey Road ground and relocation to a council site by the landowners, Molson Coors Brewing Company.)
Thanks in no small part to the great enthusiasm and drive of James and his colleagues, Non League Day has firmly cemented itself as a very important date in the fixture list. This year’s event promises to be bigger than ever. When attending non-league football matches a warm, community-driven atmosphere is afforded you, quite often along with a decent pie and pint.
The games are usually played in the traditional Saturday afternoon 3pm slot – and when else would you be able to stand anywhere you like in the ground, possibly even changing ends at half-time to ensure you are at your side’s attacking end? Very often, the money collected through the turnstiles often helps fund not only the senior side, but the junior set-ups also.
NON LEAGUE DAY 2013.
Looking back at that Greater Manchester map, the Conference fixture lists for Non League Day 2013 has provided three games for the region. Hyde FC, Stockport County and Stalybridge Celtic – all play at home on the day (Conference Premier and North). As more fixture lists are prepared for the other leagues, there will be even more flavours to choose from.
Make a date in your diary – 7 September 2013. Don’t see it as cheating on your significant other whilst they are away for the weekend – see it as helping out a neighbour. After all, it’s that or a trip to Ikea.
For more information on Non League Day, visit the website here