Thursday, 23 May 2013

A day at non-league football

Club memberships. Fancy food. Hospitality. All things you can associate with being a modern day football fan at a top-flight team. These days the pre-match grub has turned into a three-course meal, but what is life like at the lower end of the football spectrum? Whilst the Man United supporters are tucking into their crème brulee, the home fans at non-league Basingstoke Town are queuing at the burger van behind the away goal! The difference between Premier League and non-league football is huge, and I have decided to show my good friend, and Manchester United fan, Tom, exactly what he’s missing!

Picture the scene; I am trying to convince a Manchester United fan that a day watching non-league football is just as good as a day at Old Trafford, and the first thing we see when we turn up to the ground is a hand car-wash in the main car park, literally 50 yards behind the turnstiles, great start. As we get out of the car it becomes abundantly clear that the weather isn’t going to help me out today. Now I’m not saying it doesn’t rain in Manchester, but I could really have done with the sun making an appearance.

You know that feeling you get, just before you enter the ground on match-day, you walk through the turnstiles, find your entrance and walk out to see the magnificence of the hallowed turf, whilst your ears and soul are warmed by the songs of thousands of football fans? Well, in Basingstoke it doesn’t quite go like that, and the look on Tom’s face was one of bemusement. We walked into the ground to be greeted by a handful of fans, chatting amongst themselves, with the pitch mere metres away, with the only thing stopping you entering onto the field being a waist high advertising board. It might not seem great to the naked eye, but being a true fan of football, I could see the anticipation in his eyes.

     If you’re a football addict, then it doesn’t really matter where you are getting your next fix, but that wasn’t the aim of the day. The aim was to show that non-league football could be as entertaining, and special as football at the top of the game. Half an hour into the match and I managed to pluck up the courage to ask Tom how he was finding it. Now Tom is a man of many words, except during a match, and the fact that he could barely string a sentence together was a great sign! “The football is better than I thought! I thought it would have been pretty dive to be honest.” So far, so good! The first half ended 0-0, although it was a better half of football than a 0-0 portrayed, and I think Tom knew that.

Half time! So how are we getting on? If you took a scale and put ‘totally convinced’ at one end and ‘totally unconvinced’ at the other, it would be fair to say we were lingering somewhere around the middle, but not to worry, we were heading in the right direction, and with the half time refreshments in order, it could only get better. Now I know I have already spoken about food, and you might ask ‘why is food so important, this is football?’ Food and drink are the essence of a football match. It’s pie and Bovril, it’s burgers and chips, and it’s hotdogs and tea! What you consume whilst you take in the glory of a top-corner free kick, or a two-footed lunge is hugely important. As we stand waiting to be served at the burger van, Tom turns to me and utters the words which are so true, and stand out as the sole reason non-league football is great: “At least the queues aren’t as manic!” Yes! There is nothing worse than missing the start of the second half, because you are waiting for the bloke in front to remember his chip and pin code, or waiting for the hundreds of fans in front of you who missed the goal at the end of the first half because they wanted to avoid the queues.

The weather wasn’t letting up, and with that we decided to take shelter in the (only) stand. With the wind howling,  and the bitterness of the day settling in, the football began to suffer. Any hopes that the first half gave for goals galore in the second half soon began to die, along with my hopes of convincing Tom that the day could be great. I had hoped for a 5-5 thriller, but it didn’t look like being so. However, mid-way through the half, out of nowhere came a true moment of brilliance which will go down in history as the moment that changed the day from ‘mediocre’ to ‘yeah it was actually okay’; as the ball was whipped in from the left side of the pitch, the Basingstoke target man, with his back to goal, angled his body in a way Wayne Rooney angled his body on that famous day against City. He wasn’t going to try a bicycle-kick? Surely not! But he did, and not only did he try…but it was on target! Not a goal. But on target is good enough for me, and it surely brought a smile to Tom’s face!

   The full time whistle was blown, and with that brought and end to the days proceedings, but not without Tom revealing the all important information that would determine the results of my experiment. So to try and swing the balance in my favour with a last gasp attempt of persuasion, I took him to the managers dugout to hear the verdict, I wonder how many times he has sat in the dugout at Old Trafford! The words slowly left my lips as I asked Tom if I had changed his mind, he took a deep breath and smiled and said, “thoroughly enjoyed it…At least here they turn up and they have to earn their money, there’s a bit more passion and it’s nitty and gritty.”  I could barely contain my happiness and asking if he would come again he replied with a one-word answer that proved the day a success: “Definitely”.


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