The real beautiful game


An impassioned investigation into the understated world of non-league football.


Just picture this…

It’s a bone-chillingly cold Wednesday night, late in November. Rather than remain in the warmth and comfort of your home and tune into another meaningless Champions League group stage match, you instead decide to embrace the elements and pay the paltry £5 admission fee to watch your local non-league team, and experience what is quintessential about England’s beautiful game.

The smell of onions frying consumes your nostrils as you pass through a creaking turnstile, into an historic stadium rich with character and central to much of the local community. Many of whom here are loyal, dedicated fans, proud of their team, battling the freeze with plastic cups of tea and Bovril. They, like me, are here to witness two honest teams compete with every sinew of their being to reach the next round of the FA Trophy – the grassroots version of the FA Cup.

What unfolds is a match filled with goalmouth action, near misses, dramatic scrambles and last-ditch tackles, resulting in a cup upset – a true example of the working class game… and not bad for only a fiver!

It’s a scenario a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of the media-obsessed Premier League, where every match, transfer, injury and scandal (professional or otherwise) is globally scrutinised, 24-hours a day.

The Premier League has become a microclimate, a world within a world that generates billions of pounds each year. The top-paid players pocket up to a quarter of a million pounds each week, compared to just a few hundred in the Blue Square Premier, previously the Conference. And, for the average fan it now costs in excess of £4 for a lukewarm beer or bland burger.

While the rest of the country has suffered through the financial hardship of the last couple of years, the Premier League has been recession-proof. The sale of live domestic broadcasting rights from 2010-13 totalled £1.782 billion in the summer of 2009, and the overseas rights peaked to a record £1.4 billion – more than double the previous deal of £625 million.

And, ticket prices continue to rise; the cost of an average premium adult ticket is over £50, with the most expensive at the Emirates. You can now pay £100 per match to watch Arsenal underachieve. A family day out could easily set you back a week’s wages, pricing out loyal fans, and even members of Roy Keane’s ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade.’

Attendances in both the Premier League and Football League has hit a period of stagnation and down turn – 55 of the current 92 clubs suffered lower average attendances in 2010-11 than the 2009-10 campaign.

Some fans have taken up armchair spectatorship and others the safety of the pub, but some disillusioned fans have flocked to non-league football, and it’s easy to see why. The option of watching “real”, unpretentious football with kick-off times untainted by fascistic television schedules is appealing, as is the price. The average adult ticket price for a match in non-league’s top division is a shade over £16.

James Riley

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