Considering the primacy that the Premier League takes in English football, it can be easy to forget that 72 other teams operate on the greasy pole that is the Football League. However, to find the true spirit of English football, one must look past Sky Sports, fantasy football and five quid hot chocolates, and go to where the Bovril is still hot and the attendances still number in the three figures. The Vanarama National League, from Dover to Gateshead, is the true Saturday theatre of dreams.
They do things differently in the Vanarama, or the Blue Square Bet, or whatever low-level sponsorship prefix you might prefer from the multitude there have been over the years. Any disgruntled Arsenal fans, with their obligatory weekly 606 call moaning about Martin Atkinson or Mark Clattenburg, should experience a weekend of refereeing in the National League, which makes Mike Dean look like Pierluigi Collina.
Weirdly, this refereeing actually adds to the game experience – it is so irredeemably dire that a correct decision actually becomes a highlight, eliciting ironic cheers and general merriment. Not that these cheers are always audible, depending on the wildly oscillating crowd size that runs on a spectrum throughout the league. Whilst Tranmere are able to average about 2000 fans, the ‘Braintree Barmy Army’ appeared to consist of about 11 people and a megaphone at a recent match.
However, this reduced crowd size does have its advantages, fostering a genuine close knit community that see each other week in week out, from Welling away to Macclesfield home – a perhaps welcome departure from the grey mass of Sanchez and Hazard shirts on show at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge.
This is part of a more general trend that makes the National League a more promising prospect than another Super Sunday watching close-up shots of Sam Allardyce, and Michael Owen declaring that the best team won because, well, they scored more goals.
Whilst no level of English football has escaped the tentacles of commercialisation and the digital age, there is a certain folksy archaism to the Conference level that renders it slightly unique.
And the lower level of competition allows for some surprising levels of innovation, with Forest Green Rovers being a case in point. Owned by environmental entrepreneur Dale Vince, Forest Green are the first professional English team to be completely vegan, with players banned from eating red meat (for both performance and ethical reasons.) Whist this is easy terrace fodder – ‘You’re only here for the salad’, ‘1-0 to the carnivores’ – this perhaps shows that British football doesn’t solely exist as a top-down entity, with professionalism slowly filtering down to the lower leagues: maybe in a few years the Forest Green model will be the standard, and Wayne Rooney will declare how his tofu-based diet allowed him to finally fulfil his potential.
This is not to say that everyone should ditch their United shirts, sell their White Hart Lane season tickets and become a Wrexham Ultra, but it is surely undoubtable that in the era of Sky Sports following one’s local team becomes more of a niche interest – after all, why trek down to Prenton Park when you can watch Lee Cattermole picking up his 42nd yellow card of the season from the comfort of his sofa? But in an era with an increasing global and Premier League-centric view of football, it would serve all football fans, to remember that there exists a world far beyond the confines of the top division.