Shit grounds, no fans’, is a chant often heard resonating through the grounds of non-league football clubs. Such a chant is aimed at decrepit terraces, and the meagre number of fans who fill them.
Yet, these are arguably footballing arenas that can offer some of the best Saturday afternoon experiences. Growing up my local team was Hertford town FC and I hold fond memories of seeing ‘the mighty blues’ play; as a fan base we were by a distance the largest in the league, with home game attendances reaching the staggering heights of 200 on notable occasion.
The team was a perennial contender in Ryman division 2 and played some stylish football, but sadly never quite managed the ten successive promotions required to reach the premier league. Or even one of them, for that matter.
Cheering your team to the top isn’t really the point of going to watch Non-league football though. Nor is it to experience the best facilities that the game has to offer, but instead the unrivalled atmosphere.
The games may not be able to boast the noise levels of a 30,000 all-seater ground that hosts premier league football each week, but what it does have is a core of middle aged men spending their Saturday afternoons drinking, chanting, and hurling good-natured abuse at the visitors. That includes the officials, who have driven in from nearby villages to receive a pittance of a wage and 90 minutes worth of drunken insults.
In the absence of the tens of thousands of fans, the linesmen can hear every word directed at them. Whilst many find the time to answer back, my experience has shown me that often they struggle to deal with the sparkling wit and repartee of the crowd:
“Lino. Oi, Oi, Lino!”
*Linesmen proceeds to face the crowd*
“You’re Shit!! Whey!”
*Linesmen’s shoulders drop as he
questions the reasons for his continued existence*
As for the standard of the football itself, the higher reaches of the Non-league feature some very talented players and a good standard of play that is a far cry from the stereotype of the long-ball style associated with semi-professional and amateur teams.
The quality is reflected in the success of teams and players that once plied their trade at non-league level. Clubs such as Torquay, Doncaster and Exeter have bright futures having achieved multiple promotions in recent years, whilst strikers Charlie Austin (Swindon), Jermaine Beckford (Everton) and Steve Morison (Millwall) are now terrorising defences in the top leagues having learnt their trade as part-timers first. Austin scored 45 goals in 45 games for Poole Town before Swindon snapped him up last summer, and he has gone on to establish himself as key member of their starting XI.
Locally there is a selection of non-league clubs, the nearest being AFC Totton, Sholing FC and Eastleigh who are profiled on the next page.
Another Hampshire team, Havant and Waterlooville, enjoyed a sensational run in the FA Cup the year before, defeating York (Blue Square Premier), Notts County (League Two) and Swansea (League One) on route to a fourth round tie against Liverpool. They shocked the most successful team in English history by taking the lead twice at Anfield, albeit on route to a 5-2 loss.
Not every team can expect such a cup-run but there is plenty of entertainment on offer in the lower leagues I urge you to explore.