Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pyramid Scheme

My fascination with non-League football dates back to the mid-1980s, when Barry Fry's flamboyant Barnet side was causing a stir on Underhill's sloping pitch.

Indeed for anyone unsure if they are still in love with the beautiful game (as opposed to the glitzy Sky interpretation of it), I urge you to revisit a non-League ground to tap into your primitive urges.

Most stadiums are as ramshackle as their Premiership counterparts are boringly functional, but no less enjoyable to visit.

The ability to park right outside just minutes before kick-off is appealing, as is the way one can change one's view of the action multiples times during the game.

Tackles can be heard and not merely seen, whilst banter with the opposition goalkeeper is part and parcel of football at this level.

More generally, I continue to believe that the FA's football pyramid is one of the most charming features of the domestic game. The goings-on of the clubs outside the top 92 even merits its own Sunday newspaper.

Admittedly some pretty severe 'ground grading' standards need to be met at every step.

However the concept that any club in the country can reach the highest leagues, simply by winning enough football matches is a remarkable thing.

Wigan Athletic's ascent may be more explained by money than pyramids, but others like Aldershot Town, Stevenage and Yeovil represent a more romantic and realistic interpretation.

I've explained the above to many Americans, for whom such a dream would be alien in their sporting world of franchises and no relegations.

So yesterday night it was with a slightly unhealthy dose of excitement, that I got into my car and drove the short distance to one of my new local non-League clubs (Chesham United) to seek to reignite my passion for the beautiful game further down that pyramid.

With Charlton a safe two divisions away from the glamour of the top flight, last year I chose to adopt Aston Villa as my Premiership team.

It is not a decision I've regretted and I've enjoyed having a team to look out for during the ubiquitous media coverage of the Premiership, even if managerial turmoil was something I was rather hoping to escape from.

However as my esteemed blogging colleague Wyn Grant has proved, it is also acceptable to follow a non-League team with the same passion as one follows Charlton.

Moreover in an interesting aside, Chesham United are competing in the same division as his much-loved Brakes of Leamington, having won promotion to the snappily-named Zamaretto League Premier Division.

This division is one of the three feeders into the Blue Square Bet North and South divisions, which in turn feed into the Blue Square Bet Premier, the highest echelon of non-League football.

Both teams are thus only three promotions away from the Football League (in theory at least).

Salisbury City are the hot favourites, having been relegated two divisions for financial irregularities.

Somewhat remarkably they have opted to remain fully professional, a huge advantage against clubs who must snatch training time inbetween work commitments.

In the same division is Hemel Hempstead Town FC (The Tudors), whose ground is actually slightly closer to where we are presently renting, but it was mainly Chesham's charming ground on the edge of undulating countryside that sold them to me instead.

In recent years, the likes of Fitz Hall and DJ Campbell have earned their reputations playing at The Meadow, whilst the club was managed for a short while by Bob Dowie, brother of the former Addicks boss.

The club's high point was the 1992/93 season, when they won the Isthmian League (thanks in part to a 35-year old Mark Lawrenson) but were denied promotion to the Conference due to ground grading issues.

Until recently the club was like many others, on the brink of insolvency but hard work behind-the-scenes has secured the club's future, with the supporters' trust ensconced as the biggest shareholder.

The world of non-League may attract some trainspotter-type obsessives, but it also showcases some of the true heroes of the domestic game, namely the legions of volunteers who work tirelessly for the benefit of their local team.

Unfortunately much like its fully professional counterparts in the Football League and Premiership, it also attracts its fair share of financial charlatans, all too ready to impose their ego or mere mismanagement on a club, and help destroy many decades of proud history (think of Chester City or Scarborough, both now defunct).

Last night's Chesham United fixture was against Oxford City, one of the pre-season division favourites.

It was curious to note that a handful of away fans even made the trip, clad in the blue and white hoops more commonly associated with QPR.

The total attendance was 275 although it looked larger. The previous competitive home game had seen over 1,000 fans celebrate a play-off win over Slough Town.

The home side deservedly won 2-0, continuing the 100% record that began away at Truro City on Saturday.

Despite the regionalised nature of all but the Blue Square Bet Premier, that opening fixture necessitated a near-600 mile round trip for Chesham, and an overnight stay.

The quality of football on show was refreshingly high, and the commitment absolutely total in the torrential rain.

I've no doubt that many players at this level have (or had) the ability to carve out a professional career in the lower leagues, but made a perfectly logical and understandable decision to work elsewhere whilst merely supplementing their incomes with football instead.

Others like Oxford City's Dave Savage (5 caps for the Republic of Ireland) are seeing out their careers at this level, having already enjoyed a respectable professional career.

The money available as a journeyman League Two footballer may be more attractive initially for some, but where does it leave you career-wise when you are 35 and with a mortgage to pay?

Despite the pitiful weather, I stayed to the bitter end eagerly looking forward to the first game I can bring my 3-year old son to.


At 9:12 AM, Anonymous Ketts said...

I love non-league too NYA & always take in a couple of South West Peninsula gams when I visit Cornwall in September.

Truro's rapid ascent to the FL was halted last season & shows no immediate sign of getting back on track, as highlighted by their home reverse to Chesham.

Echo your thoughts & would urge everyone to take in a game at their local non-league side.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son and I started following Dartford, my home town, about 4 years ago. They'd recently moved in to an excellent new ground about 10 minutes walk from Mum's house. The stadium is superb, very eco friendly, and I believe funded by the local tory council. The club is by share owenership that is limited to ensure that is doesn't go out of business as it did in the early 90s.

Crowds have averaged over a 1000 at the new stadium - at a time the other Rymans North teams were getting between 100 and 200. Last season the average was 1193 - better tham most of the Blue Square South (where they now play) got last season.

I no longer live in Dartford, but am damned proud of their their two promotins in three years. We get to see around 6 home games and a couple of away games a season. One of the best footballing days of my life was their visit to Kingstonion last April, when they clinched the Rymans Premier 6-2. Dancing in the centre circle with then players afterwards was outstanding.

What i've enjoyed about watching the Darts is how refreshing the football is - there are so few dramatics and histrionics in comparison to league football (although this would not appear to be so in the Blue Square..)

The players may be part time but are real atheletes playing good football - much different to when I watched non league in the 70s.

Darts have a mercurial winger, Ryan Hayes. He is worth the entry fee alone; real skill class.

As you say NYA, the ability to see the game at close quarters is quite special too. When you see someone get hit by a close range shot you know they they are writhing in agony afterwards.

they have an excellent bloggers site too, where you can get match updates and commentary. I dont participate as I feel a bit of a plastic - but usually log in once every day or two.

There are some Addicks connections too - Tony Burman is their Manager ( I saw his addicks goal against Blackburn) and a certain Flanagan used to play centre back (very well too). Oh and they had a player sent off after 10 mins on Tuesday night - and nearly secured a draw too.

Pembury Addick

At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you go to Chesham today. Would have seen a decent performance against Brackley, who will be well and truly in the top few at the end of the season. Chesham won 1-0

Non league is getting to me, it's better than watching my favourite premier league team at the moment.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous newyorkaddick said...

Unfortunately I chose to go to The Valley and saw Charlton pick up a fortunate point. However as soon as I got home, I went straight online to find out how The Generals had got on.

I thoroughly enjoyed my evening at Chesham however, and will definitely be back.


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