Finally, in its third instalment, Non-League Day has truly landed. All over the country tomorrow, non-league football clubs will be kicking off at the traditional time of 3pm – only with bumper crowds and any number of initiatives going on to draw in spectators. And I’m delighted I’ve had the chance to be involved in it.
On any given weekend, around 560,000 people go to watch the Premier League and Championship in the flesh. And that’s with half of those 44 teams playing away (naturally) – given that most stadiums are at least 90% made up of home supporters, that means that around 1,000,000 people go to watch their team play at home (and, I think it’s safe to presume, spend the day vegetating on the sofa in front of Soccer Saturday when they’re away).
It was with this in mind that James Doe had a brainwave in 2010: seeing that England were playing Bulgaria on Friday night, rather than Saturday afternoon, why not go and support a local team instead? Rather than heading out to the garden centre or acting as the Sherpa for the wife down at the shopping mall, surely it’d be better to get your usual football fix by going to give some much-needed support to a local team?
The needs and wants of non-league clubs are always unique. Some clubs have very good infrastructures and support bases, or decent financial backing. But many are run voluntarily, with players that aren’t paid to play (or at the extreme, dip into their own pockets to pay subs towards running the fixture), and these are the ones that have the opportunity to benefit most from Non-League Day. As James’s anecdote goes, it was when he visited Tavistock in a pre-season friendly as a QPR fan, he realised that Rangers’ visit was like a lottery win for them because it would allow the club some breathing space in their constant battle to keep the wolf from the door. Coupled with his experience of visiting Harrow Borough (similarly needing financial help) and the window of opportunity that the international weekend offered, Non-League Day was born.
I caught wind of Non-League Day in its first year, in 2010. At the time I was working on the Sheffield Star, as the results coordinator – compiling the weekend’s non-league and Sunday League results for the South Yorkshire area for print in the Monday edition. I asked one of the sub-editors whether the Star was doing anything special for Non-League Day – I was flabbergasted at the time to learn that no-one had even heard the first thing about it.
It was then that I realised what Non-League Day was (and is), and I had probably fallen into a similar trap that many will fall into this year too. I guess that most will assume that Non-League Day is some kind of top-down initiative run via the FA, run from a swanky office with a direct line to Wembley. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth – to dispel a myth, this is a fans’ initiative which is organised and coordinated by a small team of volunteers in their very limited spare time (with varying ties to the non-league circuit). For me, the ‘office’ is nothing more than my crocked mobile and my dilapidated laptop.
In its first year, Non-League Day had some successes in laying its own foundations. Clubs across Steps 1-4 of the National League System showed an average attendance increase of around 12% on the weekend, according to the Non-League Paper – though attributing that directly to the event across the board isn’t necessarily a good idea, because there are often more reasons that the gate might fluctuate than is immediately evident at non-league level. But there were certainly instances of clubs showing creativity and flair when it came to enticing people through the gates – the most popular being offering reduced-price or free entry to anyone that produced a season ticket from a Football League club.
Still based in Sheffield when the second occurrence came around last year, I attempted to get a feature into the Star about Non-League Day – however, owing to bit of miscommunication, this never came about. But it did allow me to mock-up a newspaper-style page (along with an illustrated map of South Yorkshire) to be sent round to local news sources, to give an example of how perhaps they might choose to run with it in the future.
This year however (with San Marino scheduled to be England’s Friday-night opponents), I’ve been based a little further south and I’ve had the opportunity to put a couple of faces to email addresses, by meeting up with James and co-founder Mike Bayly on a few occasions, along with other parties that have been involved. It’s been difficult to work out how precisely to whip up support – indeed, when it’s an event that is by no means centralised, strategising can be tough.
But one thing I aimed to do was to engage those professional clubs that aren’t playing on Saturday (ie. the Premier League and Championship clubs, as well as six from across Leagues One and Two that aren’t in action tomorrow) to actually give the event a bit of backing too. In the personality-led environment that is football clubs’ media teams, I know that that can be a thankless task – in the last two years, very few had chosen to acknowledge Non-League Day by running anything on their website or in their programmes.
After spending an evening trawling for contact details at clubs and drafting a bespoke letter for each of the 50 clubs, I finally launched my effort the following morning by bulk-sending the emails to the recipients at media, PR and commercial departments at clubs. Realistically, I acknowledged, anything from anyone would be a bonus. Then I popped off for a shower.
So I was a little taken aback when I returned to find a dozen or so unread messages in my inbox. I assumed they were probably bounced messages or out-of-office replies, but sure enough, a bunch of people at top-tier clubs had gotten back to me right away and said they’d be delighted to run something on their website or in their programme. And I can happily refuse to take any credit for this – the efforts that other people have put in over the past two years (from the organisational level of Non-League Day, as well as non-league clubs themselves) had laid foundations to the extent that I didn’t have to beg or plead for some support; these individuals were delighted to have been approached and associated with the event. When Liverpool were one of the first to say unreservedly that they’d be chuffed to give it some backing, it put things in perspective. And having Arsenal lend Boreham Wood their team bus is something beyond what we might have imagined.
Like any campaign, it’s never easy to tell how successful it will be – fervour gathers slowly and then spikes in the immediate-term before the event. But, going by the excitement and coverage that 2012’s edition is coveting, I think we’re set for a winner. James and Mike are the two figureheads of Non-League Day and have been well sought-after from any number of media sources. Stuart Hammonds, chief reporter at the Non-League Paper (and utter genius), has also been particularly in demand. And I was also lucky enough to be a spokesperson for Non-League Day on BBC Radio London earlier this week (skip to 2 hrs 4 mins; yes I need some vocalising lessons from Alan Partridge), along with Siobhan McCall, who did an amazing job of talking up Non-League Day as both an event and a concept.
And to wrap up, that’s simply what Non-League Day is: it is an event that is due to take place annually, and who knows what its future holds after the imminent success of this year. But it also remains very conceptual – its vagueness allows clubs to get out what they put in and use their local knowledge to suit their own needs. In this way, Non-League Day has empowered small clubs up and down the country to use this nationally-recognised event in ways which suit them – it is not viable financially for every club to offer free entry, but there are any number of offers and deals and other hooks that clubs have used.
The flagship event is of course the Cheshire ground-hop (Macclesfield, Stockport and Hyde skewing their kick-off times for an all-Conference Premier hop), but that barely scratches the surface. With the website’s new postcode-finder tool, you can find something worth watching on your doorstep; special offer or otherwise, it’s worth a go, even just as a one-off. And if you enjoy it, hopefully it’ll be more than just a one-off.