Jamie Vardy, Stuart Pearce, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand, Michail Antonio (pictured)… They all have one thing in common. They all started their careers playing non-league football.
But you knew that anyway, right?
Football coverage in the national press has 99% of its pagination focused on just 0.1% of all clubs. It’s rather alarming that most fail to acknowledge that non league football even exists.
And this season’s Premier League TV deal has widened the chasm between top and bottom.
Rewind to the Premier League’s inception in 1992 and the average annual player salary was £24k – that salary was three times greater than the average for League 2 players that same season. By 2015, Premier League players earned, on average, £1.7 million per annum, a figure that dwarfs the £40k League 2 players pick up.
Billion pound TV deals, multi-million pound sponsorship agreements, globalised branding, celebrity footballers, they’ve all contributed to the hyperinflation of Premier League football.
But the differences are not just limited to player wages; there’s also growing disillusionment on the terraces. Football, at the top level at least, is not the working class sport it once was. It’s become too easy to follow the nation’s top clubs from your armchair.
And if you do go, you bemoan the journey, the ticket prices and the overall cost of the day out. Even the sterile stadium atmospheres are becoming a bugbear. You’re not a name – you’re a number.
All change at the top
In 1992 just 11 Premier League inaugural day starters were from overseas shores. This season Chelsea, Man City and Man United all started with just two Englishman apiece in their respective curtain raisers.
In rolling two year cycles papers are left to lambast, let’s be honest, a recurring whiff of disappointment from our national team and year-on-year everyone scratches their heads wondering why.
“Perhaps young English talents don’t get the opportunity they deserve these days” say most. But “these days” is a phrase just served as a cliched excuse to blame it on the increasing number of foreign imports at the top end of our game.
Well down in the lower echelons of our footballing pyramid, where the other 95% of football is played, non league football at the heart of your community takes place on a weekly basis. And thanks to the recent English success stories of Dwight Gayle, Jamie Vardy and now Michail Antonio there is a growing belief that more English gems can be plucked from footballing obscurity.
Jamie Vardy, 24-goals last season in our top division, was dismissed as a cast-off by Sheffield Wednesday as a youngster. Not good enough they said. Vardy was forced into the non-league game like most of these finds. And the increase in foreign imports forcing young players further down the pyramid, for me, serves to squash one misconception about the standard of lower & non-league football. Obviously those who do as well as Vardy are rare but there is still a conveyer-belt of talent who make the leap into the professional game.
Non League Day
And this weekend, away from the mass Premier League globalisation, over-inflated wage bills, and egotistical footballers is a thriving under-publicised community that will be thrust into the limelight thanks to James Doe’s “Non League Day”.
And this is your opportunity to get involved.
Wealdstone host Poole Town on Saturday and to promote the club’s participation in Non League Day the minimum entry donation will be £5 for adults, £3 for U18s and U16s can come along for free.
It’ll be worth it because you’ll witness two clubs who have started the season well and both have recent examples of producing top talent too. Wealdstone sent Jermaine Beckford on his way to an albeit brief Premier League stint with Everton, and Charlie Austin’s mightily impressive goals-to-games ratio for Poole Town earned him a move to the professional game.
But the game at non league level has many more benefits aside from the obvious talent hunt for the next big thing.
At Wealdstone you can expect a volunteer-led community based club in the heart of Ruislip offering one of the most diverse fan bases in non league football. 90 minutes where you can saviour all that is great about non league. Wander segregation free around the ground, take in the quirkiness of the club house where pints are affordable and even pop into the megastore to pick up a souvenir. Oh, and you can watch standing too; just remember to change ends at half time!
Non league is a family. Here, at Wealdstone, the club cares. And in the main, the players care too. There’s no running track between the pitch and terraces either so it’s open season when it comes to player-fan banter. And there’s plenty of that. And plenty of passion.
Wealdstone have a proud history and although no longer playing in the borough of Harrow (that’s a long story), the support has grown steadily since the relocation to Ruislip with attendances consistently pushing the 700-mark for the past couple of seasons. The birth of the Wealdstone Raider has done no harm either with Gordon Hill’s rapid rise contributing to a cult following with visitors from all over the country coming to the Vale to meet this unlikely hero. In fact his influence has stretched wider with some making the pilgrimage from Norway in recent seasons, whilst the Raider has enjoyed immortalisation in Holland with several banners donning his “Ya Wan’ Sum” catchphrase.
The British transfer window slammed shut last night with British clubs reportedly outlaying a billion in transfer fees as the gulf between the elite haves and grass roots have nots continues to widen. Imagine if that billion pound had been invested at the bottom of our pyramid? What difference could it have made to clubs and communities? Of course that won’t happen, and nor do I want to be hypocritical – I also enjoy the Premier League, it’s still football at the end of the day but the true value of our game, and the match-day experience belongs closer to home.
That’s why this weekend, whether you’re a follower of Tottenham, Arsenal, QPR, West Ham, Chelsea or any other local-London (or Manchester!) based football club, I urge you to pop down to the Vale spend a fiver in the process and breathe-in “real football”. You might enjoy it. And I know the club would appreciate having you along.
In newly-promoted Poole Town, the Stones face an in-form league opponent as last season’s Southern Premier winners have won each of their last three league fixtures. With just six goals conceded and five clean sheets from seven matches it’s defensively where Saturday’s visitors look strong – only Maidenhead (2) and Ebbsfleet (4) have conceded fewer.
Stats aren’t everything though, and there’s a few in Wealdstone’s favour as Poole’s six leaked goals have all come on their travels – two at Hemel, and four at Ebbsfleet (their only defeat to date). Wealdstone, on the other hand, have outscored everyone in the division (bar Hampton) with 14 goals to undoubtedly make this clash the most mouth-watering of all National South fixtures this weekend.
The sides have met a total of 14 times previously – Stones winning each of the first five meetings, but winning just two of the nine since (5 defeats, 2 draws).
The Stones last met Poole some 21-years ago on April fools day in 1995, the match ending in a 2-2 draw in the Beazer Homes Southern League. That match was watched by just 203 spectators as Wealdstone eventually finished the season in 15th place having conceded 94-goals – the joint-worst defensive record in the league. Significantly that 1994/95 campaign possibly marked Stones lowest point since their exit from Lower Mead with attendances at Yeading dwindling – something that would be addressed the following season as the Stones transferred to the Isthmian league, appointed a new manager (Gordon Bartlett) and left Yeading to ground share instead at Edgware Town.
Team news for Stones: Club captain Wes Parker and Ricky Wellard are in contention to return for the hosts, whilst Tom Cadmore and David Hunt remain out.
Difficult game to call with both sides occupying positions in the top-7 of the table after seven matches apiece. Stones still face question marks over their inconsistent home form and will need to address that if they’re going to be serious contenders come May.
The bookies price Stones at 6/4 making them slight favourites and Poole an 11/6 shout whilst the draw is 13/5. Interestingly though, Poole are 16s to win the league whilst Stones are at 33/1.
An entertaining contest that could go either way but with the carnival atmosphere of Non League Day contributing to a thunderous atmosphere at the Vale the Stones could just nick it. 2-1.
Pride Passion History image courtesy of Steve Foster.