Why there’s more to the beautiful game than telephone number sized transfer deals

Football. Britain’s national game. One of many things we brought to the world, yet fell hopelessly behind as other countries improved. See also the railways: once the most advanced in the world, though now behind its peers in France and Germany.

The railways are still popular today, and rising in popularity despite being overpriced for the masses. Yes, it sounds a bit like the cost of watching Barclays Premier League football. Without the railways, there would have been no Football League, fewer theatres and tourist attractions, and certainly no away days. How did Stalybridge Celtic fulfil their Southern League fixtures before the First World War? By train. How else would a smattering of ‘Bridge fans get to Rushall for an early afternoon? By road these days. The nearest station is at Walsall.

Some people might ask me why I support Stalybridge Celtic instead of a Football League or Premier League side. Or they ask me why I prefer non-league football to anything from the 92 English league sides. Price is one factor; a different, more congenial atmosphere is another; going to lesser known parts of the United Kingdom is another fringe benefit.

For some, there is the romance that a self-employed plasterer could skipper their team to F.A. Cup glory. Which leads to some mildly patronising doggerel about Stalybridge Celtic/Shaw Lane/Abbey Hey/Prestwich Heys being part-timers. With each player’s day job a trope among TV, radio, and print journalists. This usually applies when they get to the Second or Third Round of the F.A. Cup. Or further still, towards the Fifth or Sixth rounds, even.

I started watching Stalybridge Celtic in November 1994. The non-league scene has changed dramatically since I saw them beat Woking 2-1 in the GM Vauxhall Conference. 23 years on, the highest league in English non-league football could well be Sky Bet League Three. Half the present league has former Football League sides from the last two decades. Even the established non-league sides have become more professional and business like. Possibly with sounder financial structures than the bottom ten clubs may have had in Football League Division Four in the 1980s.

In 2004, the Football Conference (to give its unsponsored name) expanded to include a second division. More precisely, a Northern Division, and a Southern Division. Today, they are known as the Vanarama National League North, and the Vanarama National League South. What was once the GM Vauxhall Conference (or the Gola League and Alliance Premier League before then), is the Vanarama National League Premier.

“Off the pitch as well as on the pitch, the goalposts had shifted.”

Before last season, Stalybridge Celtic were one of three founder members with an unbroken run in Conference North. The other two are Gainsborough Trinity and Harrogate Town. For most of its stint, my team had skirted the bottom half of the table. Last season, they were relegated, scoring 40 goals in 42 games: equalling their goal tally in the 2001 – 02 season (in the Football Conference).

Two other iconic teams followed the ‘Bridge downward. One was Altrincham, founder members of the Alliance Premier League, lifting the title in 1979 – 80 and 1980 – 81 (the league’s first two seasons). The other, sadly, was Worcester City. In the last half decade, they had lost their iconic St. George’s Lane ground, a short walk from Foregate Street railway station. They have been promised a new ground and have had to share with other teams. This season, they now play the likes of Boldmere St. Michaels in the Midland Football League. A far cry from Brackley Town, Curzon Ashton, and Woking.

In the National League North, the make up and strength of the league was no different to Celtic’s last stint in the Football Conference. In fifteen years, the competition had intensified. This was exacerbated by former Football League sides falling from grace (Stockport County) Also phoenix clubs with average gates that the ‘Bridge could only dream of (A.F.C. Telford United and Darlington). Plus well monied sides (A.F.C. Fylde, Harrogate Town, and Salford City), and well supported rebel teams (F.C. United of Manchester).

Off the pitch as well as on the pitch, the goalposts had shifted. Even for the one time Manchester United of Non League Football as well as my team. Somehow, non-league football in the top two levels of the Non League Pyramid is losing its homely feel. Almost to a point where you could say that non-league football is ‘proper non league’ from the Northern Premier League, the Isthmian League, and the Southern League downwards. The non league football of idiosyncratic grounds; dogs watching football (I recommend the excellent Non League Dogs website); also being able to have a lager whilst facing the pitch.

With an increasingly professional approach in the higher levels of non-league football, this has created a glass ceiling for smaller clubs. Unless your local non-league side has sound financial backing and enough resources to climb the Pyramid. In more recent times, look at how Shaw Lane has climbed from the Northern Counties East League to the Northern Premier League Premier Division.

In the last five years, I had fallen out of favour with the National League North and wanted to enjoy my football again. I was getting bored with the ego massaging, and I wanted a change of scenery. This was helped no less by the ‘Bridge’s turmoil.

‘Real Non League’

If any of the ‘Bridge’s games had been postponed, I would sometimes seek solace at a lower league venue. For example: West Didsbury and Chorlton’s charming ground; or the stunning views from Seel Park if Mossley A.F.C. have got a good game on (though The Fleece Inn is a similarly good diversion).

What I call ‘real non league’ is alive and well at my little club. In our new, albeit lower league, the joys of changing ends at half time is the norm. There is no pretence. Nor the commodification of a non league ideal or fashion statement (you know, the “we’ve invented non league football” schtick). A part of the community instead of a brand. Or rather, its community values being the ‘brand’. That difference between watching Stalybridge Celtic or a League side; or choosing a small, family run hotel than a Travelodge.

There is more to non-league’s homely charms that draw me towards the ‘Bridge or other grounds. It is that of going to obscure places like Market Drayton, South Elmsall, or Blyth. This is where non-league football goes hand in hand with my love of public transport, and trying weird and wonderful real ales. Getting to the odd game by train, and its foibles is part of the joy. Sometimes it can be better than the game itself, if the ‘Bridge had a crushing defeat.

With non league football, I wouldn’t have it any other way. So long as the homeliness remains. On another note, here’s hoping The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic do their best in the Northern Premier League Premier Division this season.

S.V., 18 August 2017.

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