Non-League Day: Going Grassroots

By Zack Goldman and Nathen McVittie

Last weekend, we went local.

With international break in full-swing, and the Premier League shelved for the weekend, we turned our attention to the non-league game, where football beats in the heart of communities across Britain.

State-of-the-art stadiums, bright lights, and perfect conditions seem to define the modern game, but they're not what really matters; if you've got two teams and a pitch (no matter what it looks like), you're set.

So, on Saturday, we partnered with #NonLeagueDay to salute their sixth annual celebration of grassroots football. We were after provincial grounds, in all parts of the country, packed by local fans, supporting their community club. We didn’t come to see footballers; we came to see people playing football—and their coworkers, neighbours, and friends supporting them.

Even for the larger clubs in non-league, the ground is still a place for families—where a ticket, pie, and cup of tea costs less than what you’d pay to park the car at Old Trafford or The Emirates.

We came to find the roots of the English game, twisting beneath the chalky white lines and creaky stands of non-league football’s outposts, big and small.

We came to find passion—and to get swept up in it, in a place where it’s a problem if you don’t want to stand for the whole match.

We came to find football—and we’re pleased to say we did just that.

 

Clapton F.C. is far and away the most famous team in ninth-division football—and with good reason. A trip to The Old Spotted Dog Ground in East London isn’t an ordinary day out—and the Clapton Ultras, as the team’s hardcore fans are known, are anything but traditional football supporters. Passionate, proud of their local area, and distinctly left-wing, these fans, and those who come to watch them as much as the football, embrace the political edges of the sport. From defending the rights of refugees, to battling homophobia in football, to decrying fascism and other forms of discrimination, this is about more than standing up to support your club; it’s about standing up to support justice.

With flags and flares, the men and women of the Clapton Ultras sing for 90 minutes in the Scaffold (their makeshift terrace, constructed from—you guessed it—scaffolding) and create an atmosphere that infuses elements of party and protest into the traditional English football match. The fans are even allowed to bring in a ‘reasonable’ number of cans of beer for consumption—something you won’t see at many grounds across the country.

For those looking to experience a very different football club—one whose mission extends far beyond the pitch—a trip to E7 is well and truly in order. And on Non-League Day, with six goals, 761 fans (two from the away team), countless beers and plenty of pyro, Clapton F.C. proved the place to be.

 
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Non-League Day, for all its fun, is one that most fans would rather not experience. For many clubs in the fifth tier and below, a lengthy stay in the Football League would be a dream; for Tranmere Rovers, it’s the only reality they know. After 94 years in the higher rungs of the professional pyramid, the Birkenhead club were relegated from League Two at the final whistle of last season.

The strength of a club’s base of support, though, is measured in its darkest hour—and rather than curse the dark, Tranmere fans have lit flares instead. The Rovers have met new, less glamorous challenges with vigour and conviction, as the club has rebounded from the gut-punch of relegation, both on the park and in the stands. Their attendances this year in the dreaded Conference—or The National League, as it’s now known—are higher than last season, and the Rovers, with renewed focus and stakes higher than ever, have continued to engage resolutely with a local community that sits just across the River Mersey from Liverpool and Everton.

This mutualistic relationship, of club supporting community, and community supporting club, is the quintessence of Non-League Day and what makes England the exemplar of the grassroots game across the globe.

 

The non-league landscape is dotted with clubs founded by fans after the demise of teams they’d loved. More often than not, this was a cruel, inexcusable fate suffered by a community at the hands of abominable management. Whether these missteps were the result of knowing and intentional impropriety or merely naive and unsophisticated business dealings, it was, inevitably, the fans—and the fans only—who were the ultimate victims.

AFC Croydon Athletic is the result of this harsh reality of modern football. Formed by the fans following an ill-fated takeover at Croydon Athletic F.C. (the owner was later found guilty of widespread corruption that ultimately sank the club), the Rams currently ply their trade in the Southern Counties East Football League, a ninth-tier competition for clubs throughout Kent and neighbouring parts of London, where they’re based.

Award-winning photographer David Bauckham, who has explored scores and scores of England’s smaller football teams on the phenomenal Centre Circle Publishing, took a trip to Croydon's Mayfield Stadium on Non-League Day. What better occasion to catch a supporter-owned side in action than one meant to highlight the connection between local football and its fans?

 

Non-League Day is a brilliant initiative that, quite simply, goes far beyond football; it is a day that uses sport to help communities discover, appreciate, and connect with themselves.

It’s a yearly reminder that the beautiful game is far, far more than what transpires on the perfect pitches of glittering arenas and what gets beamed across the globe to billions. It’s what happens in your own backyard—and it’s what you contribute to.

Non-league football is not just England’s most pure and precious bastion of grassroots sport, but most of the world’s—and it needs more than one day a year of support to survive, much less thrive.

Let’s not wait for that day to roll around next year before we make a difference.

 

Thanks to David Bauckham for providing AFC Croydon Athletic photos.
For more information on Non-League Day, visit the official site here.

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