Myth v Reality
In July 2018, I attended a pre-season match with a friend of mine – a London domiciled Ipswich Town fan. The match in question was Barnet v Ipswich. Pre-match talk between us solicited his opinion that there would be a few goals in it, and that Ipswich would win comfortably. After all, on paper Ipswich were a Championship side, and Barnet were non-league (albeit, only by virtue of a last-day relegation after an Herculean effort to stave off the drop was thwarted in the death-throes of the season). In his mind, non-league meant sub-standard; enthusiastic amateurs playing at this level because they don’t have the talent or desire to compete higher up. In the event, Ipswich did win the game, 1-0 courtesy of a goal scored with about 10 minutes left, after Barnet had had the better chances – two in particular spring to mind; midway through the first half when a Barnet striker got clear of the Ipswich defence and put the shot past the keeper as he advanced, but just wide of the target. The other came a few minutes before the winner, when a centre-half, up for a corner, rose highest in the 6-yard box and headed against the bar. As we supped our post-match refreshment, discussion of the game revealed his surprise at how competitive Barnet had been. His pre-match forecast had been based on the assumption that Barnet would be markedly inferior due to their status, and the full-timers would run rings round them on their way to a comfortable triumph. The discovery that Barnet could actually pass the ball around a bit, and most of their players did not have the first touch of a carthorse, came as a pleasant surprise to him. I had tried to explain that the standard of football in the National League was actually a lot higher than he’d anticipated, but he was unequivocal in his declaration that “Barnet will run away with that league this year”. In the event, they finished 13th, and were nearer the relegation fight than the scrap for promotion, but therein lies the crux of people’s beliefs : non-league football is of a poor standard, and not worth wasting time on. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I was in a pub in Chiswick during last season, and they had the Arsenal v Tottenham match on. The pub was rather large, and very full. There was probably in excess of 100 people in, and possibly close to 200. The majority were there to watch the football. I wasn’t, and instead of the game, I studied closely the patrons watching. Most were heavily invested in it, I assume ‘supporting’ one or other of the protagonists involved. They stared at the screens, almost as if in a trance, so absorbed were they by what was unfolding on the screens in front of them. I would guess that the majority of these people would identify as ‘football fans’; I would also guess that, for them, the experience involves mainly watching their team on television or the internet, and perhaps attending a handful of matches a season, at most, in person. That is what the fandom experience has become. I suspect that if I engaged a number of these people in conversation, they would scoff at the notion of turning out to support their local team, no doubt of the same opinion of the friend I mentioned earlier, that the football would be sub-standard, and not worth their time or effort for such agricultural fodder. They would be happier experiencing their football through a one-dimensional screen, safe in the knowledge that what they are watching can stand toe-to-toe with the most highly thought of leagues in the world, and be held up as an example of the most extreme heights of the game that all should aspire to. The glamorous fat-cats of the elite, unchallenged in their superiority.
With non-league day 2019 approaching, I just wish more people would open their minds to the possibility that there may be life outside the closeted world of the professional game. I am convinced that if they took the opportunity to sample the amateur scene, most of the attendees would enjoy what they experienced and be back for more – hopefully week after week after week.
Down in the South London Riviera, for example, there is a revolution going on. Quietly, unassumingly at first, but gathering more folk each week who like what they see – a young, vibrant, sometimes naiive outfit who are dedicated to the furtherance of their cause - the beautiful game. That team are Tooting & Mitcham United, and the aim of the club is refreshingly clear; they don’t dream of an AFC Wimbledon-style rise up the ranks into the lower echelons of the professional world, but they hope that they can unearth plenty of nuggets who will make that leap. To hone their craft on the banks of the Wandle, before taking what they’ve learnt under the watchful eye of joint-managers Ashley Bosah & Cornelius Nwadialor, and furthering their development in a higher league – preferably, a professional one. Already, from the class of 2019, 4 players have been given their chance to enhance their burgeoning talents within a professional academy – Isaiah Jones & Sam Folarin having been taken on by Middlesbrough, Abraham Odoh at Charlton Athletic, and Lexus Beeden signing on at Reading. Three clubs just one step away from the highest level of the game in this country. To add to this, Tope Fadahunsi has just announced that he has signed a professional contract with Finnish outfit, Kemi City FC, relegated from the top division of Finnish football last season, but presumably one of the favourites to be amongst the clubs jostling for position in the upper reaches of the second tier.
Five players, mostly teenagers (Tope has just turned 20!), plucked from the 8th tier of English football, and given the chance to mature at second level clubs should tell you all you need to know about the education at Imperial Fields. Why not come along, and see for yourself?
I suspect you’ll be back…