The messages have boomed out loud and clear as the social media bandwagon rolled into overdrive ahead of the World Cup Finals.
As soon as the full-time whistle had blown in Manchester United’s dramatic late win at Fulham, there was talk of domestic football being over for seven weeks as the focus switched completely to events in Qatar. Of course, there is no doubt the vast majority of the attention will be directed towards the most controversial finals in history - but to suggest there will be no domestic football taking place throughout the remainder of November and most of December is spectacularly misleading.
The EFL have been given permission for League One and League Two to continue to function as normal throughout the tournament and then there is a multitude of eye-catching options with the non-league game. Contrary to what seems to be the belief of some within football, non-league clubs don’t just magically appear on FA Cup first round day and do function all-year round, largely thanks to the remarkable commitment of long-standing volunteers.
The timing of this World Cup Finals and the absence of ‘elite’ football does offer them a remarkable opportunity to attract new supporters and showcase everything that is great and good about the non-league game. Over the last decade, I have covered the non-league game in the North East for our regional news outlets and on a national scale with NonLeagueDaily.com and the Non-League Paper.
During that period, I have experienced some extraordinary things achieved by remarkably talented individuals that have not ‘made it’ at a higher level for a number of reasons. Whether that be injury, missed opportunities or the opinion of an academy manager, these players still become heroes within their local communities and, on occasion, get to shine on a national level.
I’ve witnessed semi-professional players score last-minute winners to seal an FA Cup shock live on Match of the Day, grab late goals to win a Wembley cup final and produce the sort of goal that would not look out of place on Super Sunday. But for me, the game at non-league level is about so much more than on-field heroics. It is something of a throwback to when the distance between players, managers and supporters was not the inexplicable chasm that it has become in the Premier League.
The non-league game is about standing pitchside after getting change from a £20 note after buying a ticket, matchday programme, pie and a beer. It’s about appreciating that many of those serving on the bar or behind the food outlet are volunteers, giving up their own time to ensure their beloved clubs function.
It’s about being able to chat to players, managers and chairmen in the clubhouse after the game, rather than having to pay over-the-top costs to get unique access in hospitality lounges. It’s about clubs serving their local villages, towns and, in some cases, cities, and baring the responsibility that has gone missing. There are no multi-billion pound television deals that see supporters put out of place without a care in the world as live matches are scheduled at short notice. Clubs appreciate each and every person and pound that comes through the door as they look to strive or merely survive.
The last three years have been tough for these clubs. Yet, despite their own struggles with Covid-19 and the financial impact of the pandemic, they have fronted up in a way other clubs at a far higher level have not. Phone calls to elderly season ticket holders, food bank collections, donations of player pool funds to NHS charities and further fundraisers to help those in need.
These clubs have gone above and beyond, despite facing the very real threat of going out of business as their main sources of income were stripped away when the Football Association opted to void two consecutive seasons. The effects of that decision are still being felt by some, but now, with the World Cup Finals about to get underway, hundreds of thousands of Premier League and Championship supporters will go without their matchday fix for the next six weeks. Non-league clubs will offer a warm welcome and will feel the benefit that comes with higher attendances and the opportunity of making the most of a potential regular.
Domestic football is far from on hold: it’s continuing to thrive away from the cynical world of a cash grab of a World Cup Finals.