Article written for Total Football magazine.
On a cold and frosty October evening, most people come home from work, cook their dinner and pop Coronation Street on.
However some hardy folk like to put on their thermals, drink Oxo from mismatched mugs and watch lower league football.
You have to ask yourself, what is the attraction?
The draw of the game
A special match in the non-league is the game between Sheffield FC and Hallam FC. They are playing each other in the Sheffield and Hallamshire Cup.
The game doesn’t appear that remarkable until you understand that this is the oldest inter-club fixture in the world and it was first played on Boxing Day 1860.
This unremarkable game in a local cup is actually a reminder of how modern football was conceived. It’s not a good start to Sheffield FC’s night though.
The generator is having problems and the floodlights have gone out, the tannoy system which the Chairman describes as the ‘best in the non-league’ has stopped working and the women in the snack bar are boiling kettle after kettle of hot water because the boiler isn’t heating.
Despite the long queue for a hot beverage, the atmosphere is warm and friendly and the wait gives you time to chat to people in the line.
Next to me in the queue is an elderly man waiting for a cup of tea, who takes great pride in telling me that he was 80 last Monday.
He is a seasoned non-league supporter from Chesterfield and despite Sheffield FC being in a rival county, he tells me he likes ‘to do the rounds and see a bit of good football.’
He wanders off with his son, cup of tea in one hand and programme in the other and a big smile on his face.
Behind the scenes
Inside Sheffield FC’s Portakabin boardroom, homemade sandwiches and biscuits are delivered on family sized catering trays.
Every inch of the cabin walls are covered in mementos from high profile clubs including the FIFA Order of Merit, the highest accolade bestowed by the football governing body.
Only two clubs have ever received this award, the other is a small club you may know called Real Madrid.
On the opposite side of the room, the trophy cabinet is a chrome and beech bookshelf that looks like it was bought from Argos, a visual reminder that greatness comes in all shapes and sizes.
As I wait to talk to the Evo-Stick League First Division South club chairman, the manager of the team, Curtis Woodhouse makes his way into the room.
The former Sheffield United player leads a dual life as manager of the oldest club in the world and light-welterweight professional boxer.
He tells me that Tuesday’s are long days for him. He was up at 4.30am this morning to go to training, his face still bearing the bruises from his last bout.
I can’t imagine AVB having to take the same path to make ends meet.
The chairman’s office is the cabin above the boardroom and it surveys the ground and land the club own.
Sheffield FC are in the enviable position that they have a unique selling point that helps to bring revenue into the club.
They’re about to re-launch the ‘brand’ which the chairman hopes will financially secure the future of the club.
Supporters key to any success
If this is successful does this mean the gate receipts are superfluous?
Chairman Richard Tims believes the supporters are still the key to the club’s success.
He said: “We get an average crowd of about 320 which for this level is pretty good.”
“We used to play in front of 10 men and a dog at Don Valley Stadium. We have a different outlook on non-league football.
“It used to be notorious for guys in blazers who exclude but if there is a kid peering over the fence who can’t afford it, let him in because next time he might bring his dad.”
The chairman’s outlook is honourable but can other non-league clubs afford to be as generous, especially when teams like Northwich Victoria have to sell their ground to property developers in order to keep the business afloat?
The setup at Sheffield’s BT Local Business Stadium includes ownership of the pub on the club’s land.
The Coach & Horses, in partnership with a local brewery, brings in an extra income stream to the club.
It is handy for the supporters too because at half-time, you can go for a drink as long as you don’t bring your glass back into the stands.
Diversification is key to non-league accountancy these days.
As Richard Tims says: “Some non-league clubs put all their money into the playing side instead of the facilities, we want to create sustainability.”
The playing side
Sheffield FC suffers a little from having two big established clubs within the city.
The key to growing attendances is to tap into Sheffield Wednesday and United’s fan bases.
On Tuesday night, with a crowd of just 228, Wednesdayites and Unitedites stood on the same stands, supporting both teams in a rare moment of unity.
The game finished 3-2 to Sheffield FC.
Having watched League One football for a few years, I can honestly say that there was little difference in the quality of the football.
The stark contrast between league and non-league teams is the athleticism.
There was the odd portly player who despite the paunch still knows how to poach a goal.
By the end of the 90 minutes, both teams looked exhausted and ready for a pint in the club pub.
The game was very entertaining with lobbed shots, spectacular saves and long range goals.
Some of the defending was ‘agricultural’ at times but that added to the entertainment value.
You get what you pay for with non-league football, it may not always be pretty but at least you get 100 per cent commitment from the team and the odd giggle.
The third annual Non-League Day is coming
Whilst the big boys are on international duty this weekend, now is your opportunity to support your local amateur team.
On Saturday 13th October, the third annual Non-League Day will take place.
Non-League Day is a campaign started by James Doe, a lifelong QPR fan and follower of Harrow Borough FC who says it ‘is a celebration of the semi-professional and amateur game and a chance for fans of bigger clubs to experience football at a level they may be otherwise unfamiliar with.’
Moreover, it helps promote hundreds of clubs across the country who are almost exclusively volunteer run and do so much good for the local community.’
As Sheffield FC chairman, Richard Tims said to me: “Come down and try it, don’t just talk about it.”
I can heartily endorse that sentiment.