As non-league gains the moral high ground, League clubs need to learn
- Credit: PA
I don’t know what surprises me more.
The fact that non-league clubs like Sutton United and Lincoln City have beaten more than just one League team in the FA Cup this season, or the fact that so many people are surprised.
But why? I’ll tell you why.
Because many of you reading this will probably never have been anywhere near a Step 1, 2 or 3 non-league game (what’s Step 1, 2 3 mean I hear you cry?) - Probably many of you have never been to a non-league game - ever!
But why not? Trust me, you will enjoy.
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Like the Premier League, which has reinvented itself over the past 25 years to become the all-singing, all-dancing planet-rocking circus show that it now is, so non-league football has been improving by the bucket load in recent times.
Put simply, non-league football is on the up, playing standards are at an all-time high - and quite frankly the difference between many League One and Two players (plus a fair smattering in the Championship from what I’ve seen), is no wider than a typical car parking space at your local supermarket.
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Non-league is starting to get in right - in a big way.
Not only are players improving, many having been ‘cast-offs’ from professional clubs’ academies and elite training squads.
They are also accessible and don’t live in a bubble.
Your typical Step 1 player (National League these days, the old Conference to those who haven’t been to a game for years), is now full-time.
Very few clubs in the National League are part-time, players train all week, get paid decently and the standard of football is high.
Even at Step Two and Three (National South/North, Ryman, Southern and Northern Premier leagues), players train twice a week, many have great technical and physical attributes - the type of physical attributes most professional club academy under-23 players have rarely come across as they have made their way up from under-8!
Non-league teams travel in smart coaches, you don’t see a fleet of cars rock up into the car park, full of Maccy-D wrappers and thick shakes.
It’s changed higher up the pyramid, it’s more professional and the crowds are flocking in.
OK, so you are going to pay anything between £16 and £20 for tickets at National League level, but so what? VFM is what it is all about.
But more importantly, non-league football has grabbed the morale-high ground in a big way through it’s interaction with the community and accessibility to the players.
Take today’s FA Cup non-league headline makers for example.
Sutton’s 3G pitch is in use almost seven nights a week for local clubs - it’s a community pitch - while Danny and Nick Cowley at Lincoln spent their first days in charge, not trying to get longer contracts for their players, but showing them a replay of the day Lincoln lost their Football League status back in 2011 - 8,000 fans, tears flowing.
If that didn’t make Cowley’s players understand their and their players’ responsibilities to the city, then nothing would. Class indeed.
Live television last weekend saw cameras in the Lincoln and Sutton dressing rooms, bringing the game to the fans, it’s about establishing connection.
On a regular Saturday afternoon, the chance of your average punter mixing with League One and Two players post-game is not high - in the Championship it is almost non-existent, in the Premier League, forget it.
But why has that been allowed to happen? Money, I suppose.
When you’re a Premier League player on £100k a week, it’s easy to think you’re better than you are, it’s quite simple . . . what real world?
Back on planet earth and in the rapidly improving world of non-league football, the real world is just that.
A world where the vast majority of footballers come from - it’s just appears that non-league players haven’t forgotten it. And that’s where non-league gets it right.
Improving facilities, standards and VFM. But never forgetting its roots.
Last season I attended Championship, League One and non-league games from Step 1-7. In their own ways they were all great.
This is not about running down League football. Far from it.
But too many people are being fed the same dish every weekend. Try a bit of variety... football is a beautiful game, at all levels.