As the football season for the Premier League comes to a halt while World Cup qualification games are played, 7 September 2013 has been declared Non League Day, in support of grass roots football. So, a good opportunity to take a peek at my very local football club, Raynes Park Vale, which is located just 2 minutes walk across the road from where I live. With my husband and myself regular visitors to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea and my husband taking my son to see AFC Wimbledon for most home games, I thought it would make a refreshing change to see what it’s like to support a team at one of the lower levels.
Raynes Park Vale play in the Combined Counties League Premier Division, and on Non League Day were playing Holmesdale FC in the first qualifying round of the FA Vase, a competition for teams below Step 4 of the English Football League system. The league is based on a pyramid system, with Raynes Park Vale at level 9 (Step 5).
Rather than just turn up I thought I would check out their web site first, find out a few things about the club, about the team, how well they are playing in their league, how much it costs to watch them play, etc. But, alas, they have no official web site, despite the link on their twitter account, the only information I could find was on a Pitchero site, but information there was clearly aimed at players and the club, rather than supporters.
Undeterred, I decided to tweet them asking for more information, there was still a short while to go until kick off at 3pm. At just before half time I received a reply, and after an exchange of messages was advised that I could watch the second half for free, the £6 charge only applicable up until half time. So that’s what I did.
Obvious to say, but the Premier League this isn’t! As I approached the ground a ball came hurtling over the fence in front of me, which I duly collected and threw back to the opposition team practicing at half time. I took my place in a ramshackle old ‘grandstand’ full of dried leaves from the nearby trees, thankfully it was a dry and sunny day because I’m not sure the roof was watertight.
At the start of the second half Raynes Park Vale were already 1-0 down, and after a while conceded a second. It was no less than they deserved, they were pretty poor, struggling to string a few passes together, crosses going nowhere, and lack of fight for the ball. Only one team was going to win this game, and so it ended 2-0 to Holmesdale. We (being a Raynes Park resident I feel I can take some kind of ownership!) did have a few promising chances towards the end of the game but it was a case of too little too late.
Apart from the quality of play, the main difference I found was the how much you can hear the players, dugout and referee shouting like mad during the game. Clearly, being closer to the pitch and no large crowd singing and cheering, the shouting of the players to each other and the referee, the dugouts shouting to the referee how to do his job, and the referee having to stop and reprimand players, could be heard by all. The language was typically fruity.
But actually, I enjoyed it! I’m not sure I would pay £6 to watch them play, especially if that is their usual standard, but I might just turn up for another free second half. Is that mean of me? Could I be accused of denying grass roots football the funds they so desperately need? Or perhaps it should be viewed as a case of try before you buy, or pay what you think the game is worth?
The experience got me thinking though. Here on Non League Day, a campaign designed to promote football at the lower levels, grass roots levels, and yet I couldn’t find the information I wanted to get involved. To be fair, the game was pinned to a map on the Non League Day site (and a really useful site it is too), but beyond that very little. When smaller clubs can barely survive, and operate in grounds with less than ideal facilities, no wonder promotion of the club to potential fans takes a back seat. As someone who can see the worth of event promotion, including the effective use of social media, I think the club has missed a trick.
I don’t blame them at all. I blame a system that denies proper funding to clubs at this level, and that includes youth football as well, which would not survive were it not for volunteers. My husband has been involved with Little League, managing and coaching teams and occasional refereeing. Both my younger kids have played, my 12 year old son still playing for Wallington Wanderers U13s. But the whole system would fall apart were it not for those people who give up their time week in, week out, often at their own expense, sometimes taking a lot of abuse, running teams for the love of the beautiful game.
But whose fault it it? To be honest, I don’t know, but everyone involved has to take some responsibility for our national game. I remember back in the 70s (yes I really do!) when professional football was a mess. Horrible grounds, hooliganism rife, but that all changed when the Premier League was formed over 20 years ago and when Sky Sports started pumping money into broadcasting live games, prior to which the only football on TV was Match of the Day and The Big Match, both recorded highlights. Those were the days, she said with misplaced nostalgia!
But with the current level of obscene spending at the top of the game, we shouldn’t forget where the new English talent comes from. The new FA Chairman, Greg Dyke, had a lot to say about this in his recent speech, where he expressed great concern about where our future national stars will come from with the influx of out-of-the-box international players demanding massive fees and wages. The imbalance clearly needs addressing, and I wish him good luck, not so much finding out the problems, we all know what they are, but in enforcing an effective solution.
Now I feel bad about not paying my £6 to watch my local team!