Football is going quite well at the moment, isn’t it? Roma are having a storming time in Serie A, the other Madrid are mixing up the usual duopoly in Spain and in France, Nantes are doing their level best to upset the new billionaire owners – 7 goals in 12 league appearances so far this term. Of course, closer to home the Premier League is refreshingly exciting, even with the usual refrain that it’s still early days looming ominously. Southampton are sitting pretty in 6th spot, and love or loathe them, Liverpool being back amongst the European spots can only be a good thing for the league. We’ve also got reports from the continent that a British export, £85m Gareth Bale, is holding up his end of the bargain and performing on foreign shores. Things are good.

But what you might not have noticed amongst the furore of the modern top flight is that game for game, Shildon AFC have outscored Arsenal so far this season. Both sides are sitting atop their respective divisions (somewhat remarkably in both cases, frankly), but unfortunately for the PR department at Shildon’s Dean Street home, success in the EBAC Northern League doesn’t tend to have the national press frothing in quite the same way.

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It is however success nonetheless, and for many who have braved the January frosts over the years to pack into a dilapidated terrace watching the likes of Shildon, there is an inescapable attraction, and that’s something I’m struggling to put my finger on. Maybe it’s the pies?

I’m perhaps biased here. I’ve spent every free Saturday afternoon I have over the last five years mingling amongst those Northern League fans. I left behind the crowds  and convenience of Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, instead choosing to stand on an old terrace above the tunnel at Billingham Synthonia FC’s Glamal Engineering Stadium.

Gone is the glamour of (almost) top flight football, the multi-million pound signings and the allure of visiting superstars, replaced instead with players you’re as likely to see in Tesco as you are on the pitch. So why do the crowds still descend on local football grounds up and down the country?

On the pitch, you’re presented with a wholly different experience to the one you’d expect from an afternoon at the Emirates.

On the pitch, you’re presented with a wholly different experience to the one you’d expect from an afternoon at the Emirates. It stands to reason that footballing powerhouses won’t find themselves turning out for their local side,  modern scouts don’t miss a trick and the guys with real talent are quickly skimmed off long before you’ll see them turn out in a Tuesday night FA Vase replay. That being said, the quality on show at even the lowest semi-professional level is surprisingly high, and occasionally you do get to see relative superstar, someone who stands out as being a class above everyone else on the pitch. There still won’t be many Cruyff turns, though.

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There’s also the oft dragged out line about non league football being “proper football”, and to some extent I’m on board with that. How on Earth you go about defining this so called “proper football”, I have no idea – but I do know that a lot of the criticism thrown at the modern game seems to be happily lacking on the non league scene. Diving, simulation, whatever you want to call it; I won’t claim it’s completely absent beyond the lofty heights of the Premier League, but there’s definitely less of it.

Maybe that’s because if you’re playing non league the consequences of defeat at least financially, aren’t as great? Or maybe it’s because chances are your dad is watching from the stands, and who wants to roll around on the ground in front of their dad? I’m also yet to hear about a player being suspended for biting an opponent, knowingly launching a career ending tackle (or getting a job with the Irish national team) or showering other players in racist abuse. Which is nice, and handily brings me onto the thing that I really think makes non league football stand out.

I’m also yet to hear about a player being suspended for biting an opponent

The fans. In truth, there’s probably the same cross section of fans taking a pew to watch their local non league side as there are queuing for the turnstiles at any league stadium, but I think there’s an acceptance amongst the non league fan that really, it’s only a game. They show up, they shout and sing whilst watching their team win or lose, but ultimately you can’t escape the notion that on Monday morning the lads you’re watching aren’t going to be pouring through film clips of their performance with professional coaches.

They’re going to be driving to their real jobs to earn the money that lets them enjoy their hobby, one that started with a kick about in the park. And there it is, because really, isn’t that sort of the point of football in the first place?

James Hirst

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