Football fans everywhere owe it to themselves to attend a non-league game at some point in their lives. After watching games in the highest echelons, in sparkling new stadiums with the latest conveniences, the experience of non-league football is refreshing in its simplicity.
You can get closer to the action, the fans are some of the most passionate, and football on display is higher quality than people give it credit for. Also, non-league admission prices are cheap – fractions of the cost of Premier League games. By taking a cursory glance at the top four divisions of English football, it’d be easy to assume that the landscape of Hampshire-based teams was almost entirely barren, dominated by the goliaths of Portsmouth and Southampton. Historically, these two teams have been the most successful, each with FA Cup and league successes stretching back to the early 20th century. However, to focus purely on Pompey and the Saints is to ignore a rich and competitive Hampshire football scene in the National League and below. In the fifth tier of English football, we find more Hampshire-based teams than in the four highest divisions combined.
Most senior in league placing of these is Eastleigh FC, who reached the play-off semi-finals this year. Nicknamed the Spitfires, Eastleigh play near to Southampton Airport at the sleek-looking Silverlake Stadium (above), which has a capacity of just over 5,000 and often holds high attendances. The Bluestar 2 bus stops essentially at the door. After a somewhat disappointing 14th place finish last season, 2018/19 has been more memorable. Under ex-player Ben Strevens’s stewardship, they secured 7th place and the final play-off spot. The squad featured that typical non-league combination of familiar faces in the twilights of their careers and exciting talents of tomorrow. In the former category we find ex-Portsmouth midfielder Danny Hollands, and well-loved journeyman Mark Yeates, who’s played for no less than fifteen clubs. In the latter, 21-year-old goalkeeper and Reading loanee Luke Southwood (below) has been instrumental to Eastleigh’s success this term, as has striker Paul McCallum who netted 27 goals. Despite falling at one of the later hurdles of the season, bowing out to Salford City on penalties, the club can be optimistic about the future.
Sadly, the outlook for Hampshire’s other two National League teams is somewhat poorer. Underneath the National League in the pyramid, the National League South is the most senior division for southern teams. This is where we’ll find Aldershot Town next season, relegated by a deficit of eight points. This was particularly devastating for the club who until recently had been a League Two mainstay. Further down, in 23rd place, Havant & Waterlooville were relegated back to the league they managed to win this time last year. Eastleigh’s success is timely then, given the unfortunate circumstances the other Hampshire clubs find themselves in.
Eastleigh’s General Operations Director Tom Coffey kindly agreed to speak to me about the successes of 2018/19, and offered some intriguing observations on the National League. Not wishing to tempt fate, I nonetheless asked whether the goal for 2019/20 was automatic promotion to League Two, the lower bound of the English Football League. The fifth tier is notoriously difficult to move upwards from – only one team is promoted automatically, another must win the six-team play-offs, and four are relegated. ‘Deep down,’ Coffey says, ‘that’s what every team wants’, but expectations must be measured. Next year may well prove more challenging, especially ‘with the quality of teams coming down’ (Notts County and Yeovil Town). Yet after such a positive season, morale appears to be high and it’s certainly possible. I queried what exactly had changed this year in comparison to the mid-table finish of the 2017/18 season. Coffey gave an honest reflection of Eastleigh’s recent history, and conceded that the club’s previously been known as one that ‘doesn’t always spend money in the right places’. The difference lies in a renewed sense of ‘community’ that helped push the Spitfires impressively up the table. ‘Everyone was here for the right reason’, pulling together in the hope of getting Eastleigh to League Two.
I also wanted to address the negative perception of non-league football held by some football fans, often for unfair reasons. In the last few years, the National League has ‘come a long way’, Coffey says, becoming a sort of ‘third League One’ when considering the ex-Football League teams suffering relegation to the fifth tier recently. Two teams stood out to Coffey this term, the first being play-off finalists AFC Fylde. Financial backing has been central to their success, but Coffey also points to the relatively modest sums behind Solihull Moors’ strong showing. Solihull Moors spent far less than Salford or Fylde for example, but had a good run at the title and finished 2nd overall. Finally, I was curious to see what he thought about the relegations of Aldershot Town and Havant & Waterlooville. Coffey puts Havant’s relegation down to struggling with the league’s ‘physicality’, as well as the increased expenditure and intensity of travelling to away games. This is a major hurdle for promoted teams to overcome. I asked if we might see Havant or Aldershot returning to the fifth tier in future, and he was in two minds: ‘I’d like to think so, just thinking about the quality of football locally’. However, several seasons of National League experience, he explains, should strongly benefit Aldershot Town’s chance at promotion from the sixth tier. Havant & Waterlooville fans may have to remain patient.
In short, the next few years of non-league football in Hampshire could be eventful, but as ever the National League remains nigh-on impossible to predict. It’s a tale of strongly contrasting fortunes at this stage, but a year’s a long time in football. With any luck, Eastleigh, Aldershot, and Havant & Waterlooville can continue/rediscover their upward trajectories. Whatever happens, make sure you’re in the terrace watching.