Or: How I Ditched Premier League Football and Saved Thousands of Pounds a Season
Association Football is England’s National Sport. It brings billions to our economies, whether at the turnstile, public house or towards our broadcasters. The top clubs pay eye watering salaries to their players, and the fans pay equally eye watering amounts for the privilege of seeing City, United, Liverpool or the like. Historically, it has sold newspapers, satellite dishes and broadband packages.
The English Football League and F.A. Premier League are what we call League sides. Twenty of which are in the F.A. Premier League which was formed to funnel more telly money to our top sides. Outside of the gilded age of the F.A. Premier League (even with equally eye watering debts), there are 72 more clubs in the Football League.
Yet the 92 clubs that make up the above leagues are a tip of the iceberg in England’s footballing scene. There are Youth teams, Womens’ teams, Sunday Leagues, and amateur level Saturday Leagues. For clubs wishing to join the Football League, there is automatic promotion between the highest level of non-league football and the Football League’s League Two. Theoretically, a local team could go from park pitches to playing at Old Trafford or the Etihad Stadium in 15 to 20 years.
The Pyramid explained
In England, the system of automatic promotion from local league to the F.A. Premier League is known as the Pyramid. Each part of the Pyramid has Levels with Level One being the F.A. Premier League. The English Football League (Championship, First and Second Divisions) are Levels Two to Four.
England’s highest non-league competition is the National League Premier, which falls under Level Five. This was formed in 1979 as the Alliance Premier League, taking in the cream of the Southern, Isthmian, and Northern Premier leagues. After being known as The Gola League, the GM Vauxhall Conference, Nationwide Conference, and the Football Conference, it adopted its present-day name after the creation of two lower leagues.
Below the National League Premier is two Level Six leagues: the National League North, and the National League South. The northern league takes in clubs from the northern part of the Southern League and the Northern Premier League. Its southern equivalent takes in teams from the Isthmian League and the southerly teams of the Southern League.
Level Seven leagues are broadly regional feeder leagues. Before the Football Conference spawned two northern and southern second divisions, promotion to the Conference was achieved by winning either the Northern Premier League Premier Division, Isthmian League or Southern League title. Today, winning the Northern Premier League Premier Division or Southern Football League Central Division means promotion to National League North. Winning the Isthmian Premier League or Southern Football League Southern Division title means promotion to National League South.
Level Eight leagues are the lower divisions of Level Seven Leagues. For example: the Northern Premier League has eastern, midlands, western First Divisions. Level Nine Leagues feed into each of the Level Eight divisions. Using the Northern Premier League as our example, clubs from the Level Nine leagues like the North West Counties Football League Premier Division feed into any of the NPL’s three regional divisions.
Level Ten Leagues are usually the lower division of a Level Nine League. The North West Counties Football League’s North and South Divisions feed into the NWCFL’s Premier Division.
Level Eleven covers more localised feeder leagues that feed into regional leagues. Once again, using the North of England for our example, clubs can join the North West Counties Football League from the Manchester League. Under the national league system, there are eleven levels. Levels 12 to 21 cover leagues below the national system. (In case you are wondering, there is only one Level 21 division in England: it is the fifth division of the Central and South Norfolk League).
Levels or steps?
You may hear about Steps and Levels in relation to the English national league system and it can be easy to confuse the two. Just to clarify:
- Levels refer to where clubs are on the national league system, counting league teams as well as non-league teams. Any team at Level Six or above is classed as having Elite League Status.
- Steps refer to where clubs are under the non-league system. Step One is the highest Non League Step, which is the National League Premier Division. Therefore a Step One club is also a Level Five club under the national league system.
Principal Greater Manchester teams by Levels and Steps
Outside of Greater London, Greater Manchester has a rich seam of professional, semi-professional and amateur football in its City Region.
- Level One: Manchester United, Manchester City;
- Level Two: none (Huddersfield Town closest to GMCA);
- Level Three: Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic;
- Level Four: Oldham Athletic, Rochdale;
- Level Five (Step One): Altrincham, Stockport County;
- Level Six (Step Two): Curzon Ashton;
- Level Seven (Step Three): Stalybridge Celtic, Hyde United, FC United of Manchester, Radcliffe, Ashton United, Atherton Collieries;
- Level Eight (Step Four): Mossley AFC, Trafford, Ramsbottom United;
- Level Nine (Step Five): AVRO FC, Ashton Athletic, Irlam FC, Prestwich Heys, Wythenshawe Town;
- Level Ten (Step Six): Ashton Town, Abbey Hey, Cheadle Town, Cheadle Heath Nomads, Wythenshawe Amateurs, Stockport Town, Maine Road, West Didsbury and Chorlton, Bury AFC, Daisy Hill, Atherton Laburnum Rovers.
As well as local leagues, cup competitions are a big part of the non-league scene. Through watching non-league football, you start to appreciate how great the F.A. Cup is before reaching the Third Round Proper. In addition to the F.A. Cup, there is also:
- The F.A. Trophy: this was first contested in the 1969 – 70 season with Macclesfield Town its first winners. This competition was created for more senior non-league sides. Step One to Step Four non-league sides enter the F.A. Trophy.
- The F.A. Vase: the true successor to the F.A. Amateur Cup, this is contested by sides from Step Five to Step Six.
- County Cups: as well as national F.A. competitions, local constituents of the F.A. (County F.As) have their own county competitions. One example is the Cheshire Senior Cup which is contested by clubs who are members of the Cheshire F.A.
- League Cups: each league has their own league/inter-division cup competitions. One example is the Integro League Cup, which is the Northern Premier League’s cup competition.
A cup competition could either be a break from league action or a good chance to make some money for your favourite club. At best it could mean some national fame if they reach the First Round Proper of the F.A. Cup. At worst it could be an early exit and no BFH (“Bus Fare Home, one for the Bullseye fans.” – Ed).
In the F.A. Trophy or the F.A. Vase, depending on your club’s level, there is a greater chance of going to Wembley in these competitions. It is always good when your local town or village team has a good cup run. There is a buzz in the air with a few new converts to the game.
The Non League Experience
If you are used to watching league football, there are several things you might find besides lower gate prices:
- A family atmosphere: if you are introducing children to football, getting them to a non-league football match is a cheaper way to do so. It also shows them that football exists beyond the 92 clubs.
- Being able to change ends at half time: as fans are friendlier, and smaller in number, it is possible to change ends at a non-league game. This means, if your team is playing downhill in the second half, you might want to switch from the Mottram End to the Town End. (“That’s your Stalybridge Celtic bias showing there…” – Ed).
- Football grounds with character: some of the best views may be from Seel Park or Causeway Lane instead of the Stretford End or The Kop. There is also beauty in the imperfection of a proper football ground instead of a manicured football stadium.
- Groundhoppers: as well as supporters of either the home or away team, you might see spectators who go to the games to tick off grounds they have visited. They are known as Groundhoppers and collect grounds in the same way you might do with train numbers or beers. (I can be guilty of this when the ‘Bridge are at a loose end).
- Being able to turn up on the day: that is one of the greatest aspects of watching non-league football. You can choose to go to a game a few hours (or minutes even) before getting to the ground. Since the pandemic, many clubs enable you to book tickets online and show your e-ticket to the friendly turnstile operator.
- Local food and local beer: instead of having a pie from some Megacorp. Bakery, there’s a chance your half time pie could be from a local bakery like Carr’s The Bakers (shops on Mossley Road and Ridge Hill Lane, Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge). Some clubs have locally sourced bottled ales or cask conditioned ales.
- Teams on your doorstep: in many cases, a senior level non-league team may be closer to your doorstep than you think. What is there not to like about your local team being a success or the Holy Grail of a F.A. Cup run that could give them national fame?
- Local heroes: there’s a good chance you might know some of the players. They might be in your workplace or go to the same pub as you do. They might be Key Workers who play football at a semi-professional level (which leads to all those patronising “The Firefighter from Stocksbridge” quotes in football commentary).
- Being close to the action: that is possibly the greatest thing about non-league football – no silly prices for sitting or standing right by the touchline. That of not only being able to see the players, but also hear them shouting.
As fewer people go to non-league games than Football League or Premier League fixtures, there’s a good chance of making friends with the fans. You might go to one game, give it another try, then – before you know it – you are hooked. After watching United/City/Spurs/Chelsea on the telly or at a ground where the players look like matchsticks, you will find yourself taking in more of the game. Like music, you will find that football is best enjoyed live – at the ground instead of beamed to your screen.
Even at non-league level, Derby Days matter. Instead of Celtic v. Rangers, City v. United or Liverpool v. Everton, the rivalry between local non-league sides shouldn’t be underestimated. In most cases, it is friendly rivalry instead of malicious; still friendly enough for ‘Bridge fans and Hyde fans to call in to The Sportsman before and after the match if at Ewen Fields. In the North of England, the main non-league derby fixtures include:
- The ‘Bridge/Hyde Derby: sometimes known as The Tameside Derby due to the stature of the two teams [Stalybridge Celtic and Hyde United] in the Metropolitan Borough of Tameside. Probably one of the most famous non-league derby fixtures
- The 330 Derby: Hyde United v. Stockport County (so-called after the Stagecoach Manchester bus route).
- The Cheadle Derby: Cheadle Town v. Cheadle Heath Nomads.
- The South Manchester Derby: West Didsbury and Chorlton v. Maine Road. Also known as The Chorlton Derby.
- El Plastico: any clash between two nearby teams with all-weather pitches. First adopted as the derby fixture between Kilmarnock and Hamilton Academical. In non-league circles, Buxton v. Hyde United or Mickleover v. Basford United.
- The Ashton Derby: technically, Greater Manchester has two Ashton derbies: Ashton Athletic v. Ashton Town (in Ashton-in-Makerfield), and Ashton United v. Curzon Ashton (Ashton-under-Lyne). The Ashton Derby applies more to the latter fixture between clubs based in the Hurst and Crowhill districts of Ashton-under-Lyne.
Great non-league grounds for absolute beginners
Once you have chosen a non-league team to support, you might have itchy feet and fancy going to a few away games. One of the greatest things about non-league football is the variety of grounds you see along the way. Though some non-league clubs have moved to state-of-the-art grounds which are close to Football League standard, there are many grounds with character and stunning views. Here’s our pick:
- Bower Fold: home of Stalybridge Celtic since 1909, this impressive ground has cover on all four sides. It is in a nice semi-rural setting with an iconic sloping pitch. A recent addition to Bower Fold is the Celtic Bier Hut which sells draught Dortmunder Pils, bottled ciders, ales and perries (all served in plastic glasses of course). Hosted Football League Third Division North football from 1921 to 1923.
- Broadhurst Park: FC United of Manchester’s home in Moston which is, in part, an Old Trafford in miniature. Its largest stand formerly saw service as The Dane Bank End at Northwich Victoria’s ground.
- Causeway Lane: Matlock Town’s ground, shared with cricket, has superb views of Riber Castle in the distance. It is also nicely placed for the town centre and easy to find on public transport.
- Champion Hill: the newer version of Dulwich Hamlet’s home is a fine modern ground. In the last ten years, Hamlet have gained a greater following of younger fans.
- Croft Park: Blyth Spartans’ home, probably like Ice Station Zebra after dark but an atmospheric venue under the floodlights. A place which has echoes of previous giant-killing acts in the F.A. Cup.
- Rossett Park: Marine’s home is probably one of the greatest three-sided grounds in the United Kingdom. Shoe-horned between terraced houses, it has one fully covered side terrace, a 500-seat main stand at one of the goal ends, and an open terrace at the opposite goal end. Great social club within an intimate ground that oozes character by the bucketload.
- The Northolme: Gainsborough Trinity’s home ticks all the boxes of being a well-appointed football ground within its town centre. There are two social clubs with one by the main stand and a much bigger one at the opposite side with three rooms (one of them being a concert room). The Northolme also saw Football League Second Division football in the early 20th century.
- Seel Park: Mossley AFC’s home has a stunning view of the Pennine foothills if you watch the Lilywhites from the main stand and its terracing, the School End and the Park End. Atmospheric ground that comes into its own in Siberian style winters.
- Victory Park: Chorley’s charming ground looks like a throwback from the 1950s with its full length stanchioned grandstand and a grass bank at its opposite end. As there has been talk of its impending move to a more 21st century venue, go there whilst you have the chance to do so.
- Wellesley Recreation Ground: shared with athletics, Great Yarmouth Town’s home has the oldest grandstand that is still in regular use for football matches. It opened in 1892 and a must-visit when you’re in the resort.
Have you become an avid non-league football fan after watching league football? Are you already a long-time non-league football fan anyway? Feel free to share your stories of watching a non-league team, or why you have swapped the Etihad Stadium for Brantingham Road. If you wish to add any favourite non-league grounds to the list, comment away.
S.V., 31 August 2021.