Why non-league’s grass isn’t always greener

People always say the perfect antidote for elite-level football’s many modern-day frustrations is supporting your local non-league side. But that’s not always the case.

The social-media recommendations stacked up again as the football world collectively voiced its dissatisfaction at plans for the sport’s biggest and most-powerful clubs to break away and create their own Super League. “Support your local side,” they read – and yes you should, but experience tells me you shouldn’t go thinking the grass is always greener.

At this point it’s important to point out that most of my favourite football memories have come as a non-league football fan. From the FA Cup qualifying adventures, the promotion and relegation scraps, and away trips with friends to various outposts across England, it’s something I wouldn’t swap for the world.

I, like many others lining the terraces on a normal Saturday, found myself there because it was where I felt most comfortable as a football fan. Anybody who knows me – and my deeply cynical nature – knows my childhood fraternisation with Manchester United was never a good bedfellow. In fact, by the time I was a teenager I felt I had very little connection with what was going on at Old Trafford to the point I had no affinity with them at all.

So I started watching my local side, Nuneaton Borough. They’d just been promoted back to the Conference – a division that was probably their natural level, despite two brushes with promotion to the Football League in the 80s – and I fell in love with the blood-and-thunder of it all.

At that time, the Boro were regularly drawing crowds of more than 1,000 to our Manor Park ground, which included a healthy away contingent to create a lively atmosphere. The players were semi-professional but, as a youngster I considered them stars – Terry Angus, the former Fulham cult hero; Barry Williams, the local schoolteacher; and Gez Murphy, the star striker I once sold a saw to while working in a Sunday job at Homebase.

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Relegation a few years later and a string of failed promotion attempts didn’t dampen my spirit. Sixth-tier football? I didn’t care, non-league was great.

Why’s this all important? Because what happens next gradually chipped away at that passion. This isn’t about naming and shaming Nuneaton and regaling tales of the countless mishaps the club has suffered (although that’s unavoidable in part) because they aren’t unique at this level. It’s about pointing out that just because non-league clubs are rarely run by high-profile businessmen trying to find new ways to make their millions, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily well-run.

Non-league club owners still have ideas above their stations and sometimes run up debt despite almost certainly starting out meaning well, before disappearing to leave the fans to pick up the pieces. Mismanagement is possibly even more rife in non-league than it is higher up the pyramid and I’ve lose count of the number of clubs I’ve seen catapult down the divisions – or worse – as a result.

It happened to Nuneaton. After narrowly missing out on a Conference North play-off place in 2008, the club suddenly announced it was being liquidated, demoted two divisions and was renamed Nuneaton Town. It was the second time in less than 20 years the club had been liquidated, although when it happened in 1991, as a toddler I was more interested in board books and sticking crayons up my nose.

We were in the eighth tier but we still made the most of it. I still kept going and in a perverse way it was fun to visit new grounds on the way to back-to-back promotions. Two years later, we were back in the Conference – staging a great escape in our first season before sitting pretty at the top of the table the year after.

It didn’t feel like it mattered that we’d moved to an out-of-town ground with a smaller capacity and attendances had steadily been dropping. Well, until the house of cards fell in on itself again anyway.

Our long-serving manager Kevin Wilkin left to take over Wrexham, leaving a lot of his former players to complete a hapless relegation season. There was an exodus that summer and a new club strategy was born to give full-time contracts to youth-team cast offs from pro clubs, with a view to creating new revenue from transfer fees.

It showed ingenuity, but when that didn’t have the required results immediately, the vortex of destruction started its inevitable swirl once more – ending with the club marooned without an owner, any money or many points. It had become a farce.

As I wrote in the midst of it, my club had become a “rudderless vessel, a ghost ship left sailing football’s seven seas without a captain to steer it into calmer waters”. Even though a new owner rescued the club before it disappeared forever and stabilised them in the Southern League Premier, I fear the damage had been done for me.

I’d been in an abusive relationship with my football club for too long. Where there had once been passion, I now felt numb. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s just how I felt. It got so bad that when I came across Wilkin and a large faction of that ex-Nuneaton contingent while covering the 2018 FA Trophy final, I realised I had more passion and energy for their new side Brackley than I’d felt for my own club for some time. It was like a break-up.

I wouldn’t say there’s nothing there now, but it’ll take some rekindling to get anywhere near to what there was. It’s almost like seeing an ex after a long, dysfunctional relationship – I still like remembering the good times, but I’m not sure nostalgia is enough to make me ever feel that same love again.

The saddest thing is that my tale isn’t unusual in non-league circles. For every sob story like mine, there’s another waiting to be told or several other supporters facing similar hardships elsewhere in the country right now. Some fans don’t even have a club left to experience the tug-of-war of emotions I contend with.

Of course, there are different issues here, such as how bigger clubs higher up the pyramid have a responsibility to support grassroots football and the amount of hardship a football fan should be suffering in support of their team. And perhaps some people will castigate me for being fickle.

But it’s my experience that always springs to mind whenever I see people on social media preaching about the unfettered beauty of non-league.

In the most part I agree watching your local side is rewarding and everybody should try it out. But don’t ever tell me it’s an antidote for all of football’s wrongs because there’s still plenty of their own at this level too.

Why non-league’s grass isn’t always greener
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