Non-League Day has been growing in popularity since its inception in 2010. The idea is simple, once a year – always scheduled to coincide with the Saturday of an international break – non-league football clubs try and encourage football fans to show support for their local team. Non-league football clubs rely on the work of volunteers and the money of their fans to survive, but with now more football matches on TV than ever before the idea of watching the Premier League from the comfort of your sofa compares favourably with standing in the cold watching amateurs at your local club.
That’s where the genius of Non-League Day comes in, it reminds fans that they need their support. Non-league football clubs provide a sense of community to hundreds of towns and villages up and down the country. They are also a huge part of British football culture and society in general. They are also the reason that hundreds of thousands of adult amateurs spend their weekends playing the national sport and provide opportunities for as many children to play for the first time thanks to their youth teams and community projects.
They also provide an alternative for football fans who are growing disillusioned with the growing costs of modern day football. Chelsea, for example, have the Premier League’s most expensive ‘cheapest’ ticket at £50 while Arsenal charge over a thousand pounds for a season ticket at the Emirates, according to the BBC’s Price of Football survey. With the money now available to clubs after Sky and BT purchased the Premier League broadcasting rights for over £5 billion, fans have become disgruntled at the growing cost of supporting their team and protests before matches are increasingly becoming common.
So, on Saturday so I took a trip down to Meadowbank Stadium to watch Edinburgh City take on Edinburgh Spartans in the Scottish Lowland League. Entry to the stadium had been reduced to £5, although with student discount I paid £2. I was already in a good mood as I made my way into the stadium, having only paid £2 there was no expectation to get my money’s worth as there often is for Premier League matches.
This is one of the problems Premier League clubs face, their fans, already disgruntled at how much they are paying, arrive at the stadium expecting to be entertained and demanding for their team to win. However, naturally in a league as tough as the Premier League not every team can win every game. Teams that rarely win are having to play in front of supporters who demand their money’s worth but struggle to provide it. Just look at Newcastle, Sunderland or Aston Villa and their fed up fans.
When I reached the top of the steps leading me to the terrace I was struck by how ‘non’ non-league Edinburgh City’s Meadowbank Stadium was. Built for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, it would also host the games in 1986, Meadowbank has a capacity of 16,000, including a 7,500 seat grandstand on one side of the pitch. Uncovered concrete benches run around the rest of the perimeter of the pitch which is also surrounded by a 400 meter running track which separates the pitch from the stand.
The stadium, in dire need of the redevelopment and refurbishment commissioned in 2013 from its tenants Edinburgh Council, is hideously ugly. My eyes were drawn to the ridiculously oversized big screen which stood at one end of the ground as it looked like it hadn’t been switched on since the games in 1986. The running track also meant that I was about 50 meter from the closest side of the pitch which disappointed me as I had been looking forward to an intense atmosphere and being up close to the action.
I took my seat amongst the City fans who sat in small groups in the middle of the stand. The Spartans’ fans were also in the grandstand and had allocated themselves to the left. I quickly realised that most of the local fans knew each other and in most cases hadn’t seen each other since last week’s game. They sat together and discussed how they had spent their week, if there was anything new, how work was, it was as much of a social thing than a football match. This was very much how top flight football used to be in England and Scotland before season tickets and allocated seating separated families and friends during the game.
Just before 3 o’clock, a long standing tradition in British football, the two teams lined up to applause from the crowd, roughly 200 people, and shook hands. Edinburgh City, playing in white, were the league leaders and reigning champions while Spartans, playing in blue, won the inaugural Lowland League title in 2014 and became one of the stories of last years Scottish Cup when they came within a game of reaching a quarter final tie with Hibernian but lost the fifth round replay to Berwick Rangers in front of an impressive 2500 fans at their own Ainslie Park. There was everything to play for, especially considering that this was the seasons only Edinburgh derby as Hearts and Hibs now play in different divisions.
Spartans were on top for most of the first half, they were the better team and I had more of an idea of what their game plan was compared to City. However, despite their dominance they had nothing to show for it coming closest with a free kick which struck the bar. The most notable moment came in the first half when a particularly strong challenge from Spartan’s left back sparked a confrontation between the two teams and had the City fans crying out for a red. The referee opted for only a yellow and then produced two more for the confrontation which followed. The match began to feel like a derby.
Minutes later, a Spartans player went down after an innocuous clip from the City striker and began to roll around on the ground. The City fans began to roundly mock the Spartans player, who was clearly simulating injury, but were as shocked as I was when the referee produced a yellow card for the City striker. For some reason I didn’t expect to see any sort of simulation or play acting because I was watching non-league, the media’s spin is that diving is an epidemic which was brought to this country by foreign players, clearly the local lads aren’t immune from taking a tumble either.
In the second half the same City player was shown a second yellow card for a similar foul. City fans roared at the referee and even I thought that the home side were hard done by. Spartans began to turn the screw and City, sensing the onslaught, shut up shop and their goalkeeper began to waste time, another example of gamesmanship in what was meant to be the purist form of the game, a million miles away from the overpaid cheats of the Premier League.
There really isn’t any difference, its just the players in the Premier League are paid more in a few weeks than you or me will in lifetimes. There’s the same rules, the same ball, the same will to win. There is obviously a huge difference in talent but there were some good players on show here too. Spartans’ captain caught my eye, a small gnarly lad in central midfield who was clever in possession and despite being inexplicably moved to left back in the 2nd half he continued to be Spartans’ greatest threat.
City’s striker also stood out. Tall, elegant on the ball and a hard worker, he eventually scored what turned out to be the winner in the 80th minute, flicking a long ball from deep over the onrushing goalkeeper with his head. Completely against the run of play but celebrated wildly by both players and fans as the Spartans looked stunned.
City’s narrow win means that they stretch their lead at the top of the Lowland Legaue to 9 points after 13 games, Spartans are 12 points behind their rivals although they do have a game in hand.
Promotion to the Scottish Football League is the ultimate aim for both clubs. The winner of the Lowland League faces a playoff match with the winner of the Highland League with the victor facing a two legged playoff / regulation final with the team who finishes bottom of the Scottish League 2. Last season City were defeated by Highland champions Brora Rangers on penalties and they will be desperate for another chance to claim promotion.
Perhaps unlike the English non-league system, there wouldn’t be that much of a jump if City or Spartans were promoted. Annan Athletic, for example, who were admitted to the league after Gretna folded in 2008 have settled well into the professional league and have pushed for promotion every year since. Also, in terms of attendance neither side would look out of place. Many of the teams in League Two average an attendance of hundreds, usually five or six but its not uncommon to find a League Two game watched by only a couple of hundred people.
I left Meadowbank Stadium feeling satisfied with my afternoon. I couldn’t complain at the admission price or the game itself. It felt quite relaxing to watch a game of football as a neutral, taking in the sights and sounds of a football match impartially. I was just surprised at how ‘non’ non-league my experience was. I have been to a few Stirling Albion, Alloa Athletic and Stenhousmuir matches in the past. All three teams have spent the past decade jumping between League One and League Two but I didn’t notice any major differences between Saturdays game and these semi-professional teams. I just think that, unlike in England, the line between amateur and semi-pro is slightly blurred.
There are some people who have given up the Premier League for non-league football but I don’t think I could be one of those people. The Premier League is too expensive but its also fantastic entertainment and its something that as a country we should be proud of. But Non-League Day is something that we should be proud of as well. It is vitally important to maintain the link between communities and their football clubs and Non-League Day does an amazing job in raising awareness. If Non-League Day has even convinced one person to make an effort to support their local team every week then it will have done its job and hopefully it continues to work hard to ensure the future of grassroots football in this country.