Non-league football: returning to the grassroots

Sport

Image description: A close-up of a football pitch

The Newcastle United takeover is just the latest move by foreign investors attempting to gain a slice of the seemingly endless sums of money in European football. With fans increasingly disillusioned with the game at the highest level, non-league is providing a return to ‘the good old days’ of the English game.

Whilst the Newcastle deal has been received with joy by the vast majority of Magpies supporters, the rest of the footballing and political world has been left divided. Countless politicians, organisations such as Amnesty International, and a large collection of Premier League rivals have spoken out about the move, slamming it as another example of a state with a more than questionable human rights record installing itself in the British market.  In reality, though, this is just the latest example of Middle Eastern states making a move into the lucrative market that is the European game.

In September 2008, the game changed for world football when Abu Dhabi United Group, led by Sheikh Mansour, bought Manchester City.  The City Group company founded off the back of the deal has since gone on to hold a majority or total stake in ten clubs across ten different countries.  Qatar Sports Investments, a company intrinsically linked to the state of Qatar itself, followed suit three years later and purchased a majority holding in Paris Saint Germain.

fans are increasingly growing fed up”

The appeal for these nation states is clear.  Both of these clubs have since gone on to enjoy previously unprecedented success that culminated in their meeting in the Champions League Final last season, but fans are increasingly growing fed up of their teams being run by foreign-led groups who are perceived to have little or no understanding of the domestic game.  Not all foreign investments go as smoothly as these two European success stories, as recent chaos at AC Milan, Manchester United, and Derby County illustrate.

In fact, in the wake of the controversial plans to form a European Super League earlier this year, a poll suggested that 55% of English fans wanted fans to hold a controlling stake in their clubs, with 47% thinking that billionaire owners have had a negative impact on English football.  A model much like this exists in Germany, where commercial investors aren’t allowed to hold more than a 49% stake in a club.

Off the back of this disillusionment, it appears that the extraordinary non-league pyramid in England that has been neglected by fans for so long might finally be ready for a comeback.

In England alone, there are an estimated 2,000 clubs playing in the established non-league system, which comprises roughly ten levels.  This far outweighs numbers in any other European country and means that everybody has a truly local team fully integrated into the English League system.

There’s a magic about the lower levels of the English game”

There’s a magic about the lower levels of the English game, and fans are finally beginning to recognise it again.  In a world where supporters feel distanced, smaller, local clubs let them get closer than ever in so many ways.  In a literal sense, the ability to stand pitch-side and hear the voices of players and coaches adds a rawness to matches that is lost in stadiums holding tens of thousands.  The price of matches means that families can bring children every week at a fraction of the soaring ticket prices seen at the top level, and the chance for young fans to genuinely get to know players and staff – who are playing not for the money, but for the love of the game – is priceless.

Personally, I’ve seen the impact recent events have had on attendances.  As a commentator for Winchester City FC, a side seven promotions away from the Premier League, I have witnessed more spectators than ever come through the turnstiles this season, with the same being reported across the UK.

The message from fans is clear. After a year of games behind closed doors, and amid increasing foreign involvement, they want to go back to basics – here’s hoping that non-league football continues to get the support it so deserves and helps fans fall back in love with football.

Image credit: Emilio Garcia via Unsplash

 

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