Non-league keeps it real for fans

SUFFOLK'S giant-killing non-league clubs have stolen the headlines this year. And it seems the semi-pro game is enjoying a renaissance, with attendances and interest in the ascendancy.

Josh Warwick

SUFFOLK'S giant-killing non-league clubs have stolen the headlines this year. And it seems the semi-pro game is enjoying a renaissance, with attendances and interest in the ascendancy.


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Leiston and Bury Town hit the national headlines this year after embarking on unlikely and odds-defying cup runs.

Meanwhile, on the fringes of Suffolk, Histon are still flying the East Anglian flag, The Stutes' stunning victory over the once-mighty Leeds United setting them up for a tasty third round tie against Swansea.

While the profiles of our FA Cup heroes have been significantly raised, the rest of the non-league community are also enjoying an upturn in fortunes.

East Anglia's Ridgeons League, considered to be one of the best in the UK at its grade, has become a popular fixture for supporters seeking out a good game of local football.

Attendances are up across the board, while the media is even affording more time and resources to the grassroots game.

There are two national non-league newspapers, coupled with a satellite channel dedicated to semi-pro football.

Non-league's resurgence is music to the ears of the likes of Gareth Baldwin, chairman at Histon.

“The number of letters and e-mails we have had since we beat Leeds from fans of many different clubs has been incredible,” said Baldwin, who, as Histon's supremo for the last 17 years, has experienced the highs and lows of the less glamorous aspects of the beautiful game.

“People have written to say that they had fallen out of love with football but we helped them to fall back in love with the game.

“The Premier League may disagree, but portable toilets, burger vans, muddy pitches and packed grounds actually turn fans on.

“They don't like the bland stadium environments.

“I think football has gone away from being the working man's sport.”

Histon may be on the brink of league football, but their ethos has remained loyal to the club's humble past.

“We are unique in the non-league pyramid in that we have progressed very quickly,” said Baldwin.

“But our players still eat and drink with the fans after the game.

“Too many clubs have a players' lounge where fans can't touch or talk to the players and that has to be

a negative. Ten years ago, we were in the playing in front of 100 people. Now we are playing in front of 1,000, but nothing has changed.

“We are part and parcel of the community and our fans love that.

“For instance, we have four players coaching in local schools. That means the kids get coaching from the players and then watch them on a Saturday.

“Then there's the fact that we can offer very affordable football. You can see an exciting match for £13 sitting down.

“You compare that with going to the Emirates to watch Arsenal, where tickets can cost between £60 and £90, plus the ridiculous food prices.

“I think some Premier League players have made themselves hard to relate to. Perhaps because of that, people have turned to non-league football, which is continually becoming more and more popular.”

Statistics revealed recently support Baldwin's view.

Premier League attendances have fallen slightly, nowhere more so than at troubled Newcastle United.

The Magpies' average gate this season has dipped to 46,489 compared to last term's 51,321.

For the first time since the Premier League was launched, fans have been able to buy tickets for top-flight games on match-days and as well as empty seats around St James' Park, executive boxes - which can cost as much as £35,000 a season to rent - remained empty.

Neighbours Sunderland are faring little better.

Their average attendance this season is 41,186 compared to 43,344 last term, which represents a decline of 2,158 supporters per match.

Histon's meteoric rise - the club has achieved a staggering five promotions in only 11 years - has attracted fans of the professional game, keen to see a slice of football from the other side of the tracks.

Baldwin said: “We get people who come to watch us who have travelled from Ipswich and Norwich. They go and watch Championship football but come and see us every other week when their team are playing away.

“We have become a lot of people's second club.

“For us, that's great because it builds up our fan base.

“Funnily enough, three or four years ago, we used to get lots of Cambridge fans coming to see us. Now we are challenging Cambridge many have parted company with us because they see us as a threat.”

Andy Crisp, chairman of Leiston, is another basking in the afterglow of his team's stunning cup run.

But gates were up at the Suffolk club regardless of the Blues' giant-killing expedition.

“It's been phenomenal,” admitted Crisp.

“The interest in us has come from all quarters.

“We can offer very good value for money and the facilities in the Ridgeons Premier League are very good.

“You get good, honest players playing at a good level.”

The average league attendance this season is up by around a fifth on last season's gates.

And with prices creeping no

higher than £5 for a ticket, the attraction is not difficult to understand.

Crisp believes supporters of top flight clubs are suffering from a bout of apathy - and that the non-league sides are the obvious beneficiaries.

“I think people are getting fed up with top flight football,” he said.

“Prices have gone up and up. They are not what supporters would think are good value.

“There is a distance between the players and the clubs these days. That may be financially driven or it may be that the players think they are above the people who pay to watch them.

“I think many of them just don't care.”

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