The Saturday before last was the fourth “Annual Non-League Day”. If this event, and the three other ones, passed you by you may be wondering what the day is all about, well don’t worry it’s simply understood, the nature of the day is self-evident from its title.
Non-League Day (henceforth NLD) is the day when lovely people forsake the refined air of elite football to celebrate semi-pro football by filling the grounds of football’s poor relations.
I cannot fault NLD’s heartfelt, and well-meant, sentiments. I should support any initiative that encourages people to think about football outside the top two divisions in England. I should applaud any initiative that encourages people to visit semi-pro clubs but life isn’t that simple, I have a few issues with NLD.
Firstly, the organisers can’t be arsed with the semi-pro clubs of Wales, would it have hurt them to have done a little more research? Secondly, not only did the idea began life as a “social media experiment”,
“Non-League Day was set up by James Doe in 2010 as a social media experiment, after being inspired by a pre-season trip to Devon to watch Queens Park Rangers play at Tavistock. It has now grown to become an annual part of the football calendar, “
a single person tries to take ownership of this type of idea. The undoubtedly well-meaning sentiment is immediately undermined by the claim of ownership. Call me picky but I don’t particularly like the implication that it took the patronizing attention of a big club’s fan before anything like this could happen.
NLD’s creator isn’t the quite the pioneer he seems to think he is. Did he realize that the people involved in non-league football, whether that’s governing bodies, leagues, clubs, officials or media outlets, may have already attempted to increase interest in semi-pro football BY THEMSELVES, or that Leagues may have already formulated “football weekenders” by staggering fixtures BY THEMSELVES, or that semi-pro clubs might have always tried to attract supporters with offers BY THEMSELVES. I’m sure all this might have happened before the attention of NLD’s creator was slightly diverted from his beloved Rs.
Thirdly, the day’s explicit aim is “supporting grassroots football which will ensure the foundations of the game in this country stay strong” yet it’s scheduling shows that it’s nothing more than tokenism. NLD is “Always scheduled to coincide with an international break” so even though it’s a day specifically designed to help the “grass roots” of the sport the timing respects the sanctity of the premier league. You can see the thumbprint of the “premier league epoch” in The Guardian’s description of NLD;
“If your Championship team don’t have a game tomorrow why not make the most of Fifa’s scheduling and take a trip further down the food chain.”
Clubs “further down the food chain” is it?
The premier league fans that bestowed their perfumed presence upon forlock tugging non-league hosts probably felt the holy glow of the righteous but they have no right to feel righteous or worthy, their attendance probably required virtually no effort. These heroes had a football free afternoon and a semi-pro match is comparatively hassle-free regarding tickets and travel. All they did was slum it for a day at the “lower end of the food chain“.
Unless I’ve misread the creator’s thoughts changing the situation faced by semi-pro clubs appears to be the day’s purpose; “Remember, Non-League Day isn’t about supporting just another team, it’s about supporting grassroots football which will ensure the foundations of the game in this country stay strong..” The last line of the website’s explanation tells us explicitly that we can help things change; “You can make a difference on Non-league Day. Get involved!”
Yes very good, but has NLD helped to change things over the last four years? Has it led to the re-birth of English Football, or a more equitable sporting world? Has it lead to the death of SKY Sports? The answer is most obviously no.
This is not to say that there won’t have been any benefits from NLD. Each year some people will have been reminded that non-league football exists and some clubs’ average attendances and takings will have been bumped up. However these benefits are momentary; most people will forget about semi-pro football again and the increased proceeds from the single match on NLD will be quickly lost in the mundane costs of running a semi-pro club. The most that NLD could have possibly accomplished is to convince a couple of hundred people across the whole of England to start attending non-league matches.
Even though the creator attempts to wax lyrical about the potential benefits of NLD his words don’t ring true. If he really, truly cared about the “grass roots“ he would organise NLD for a Saturday that wasn’t in the international break, or maybe even more than one a season. If he really cared about semi-pro football he wouldn’t qualify his noble statements with less than charitable opinions such as; “The level of skill on offer at non-league grounds will never compare to that at the Emirates Stadium or Old Trafford”. If he really truly cared he’d play down his personal part in the “NON-LEAGUE DAY” story. If only he treated the day as an engine of change rather than a salve for the conscience of guilty supporters.
Sadly NLD follows the 21st century’s well-trodden path of hollow football activism; a nebulous idea about holding something to account takes hold, a pressure group is formed, a day of action is declared, some kind of ill-focused protest is organized, and when it’s all over everybody sits back and waits for the inevitable change that will happen simply because they’ve deigned to make an effort for a couple of hours.
Unless NLD widens it’s scope, or becomes part of a wider process, it won’t ever achieve anything progressive or tangible, and the present structure of football will remain intact. NLD could be a part of so much more and it’s not as though its creator doesn’t understand the issues involved, he even makes the case for semi-pro football;
“Given the current financial climate, clubs outside the football league need all the support they can get, so your presence at a game will be genuinely appreciated. With tickets and refreshments at a fraction of the cost, what’s stopping you!”
This quote illustrates the problem with Non-League Day; it could be so much more but it’s defeated by its own tokenism. Non-League Day happens, then what? Everything returns to normal the day after that’s what. A few premier league fans may have an amusing story of contrasts to tell their mates but the same people will be volunteering at semi-pro clubs, and the same people will be going to watch semi-pro clubs. If the organiser was so bothered about non-league football why is he still a QPR fan? Why isn’t he volunteering for his local semi-pro club every Saturday?
If helping to create fundamental change isn’t effect of the day then what is the point in it? Would it be too fanciful to suggest that Non League Day could be used to encourage people to forsake the premier league pantomime altogether?