NB: Those who don’t follow non-league football may want to consult the diagram below about English league structures before reading, to avoid confusion over what a Ryman or Conference league is.
It’s an understatement to say there are a few issues to resolve following the devastating floods in the south. Issues such as whether it’s worth cutting flood defence funding if the government later has to pay more for preventable flood damage, why there is funding available to help flood victims but not working families reliant on food banks, and how Nigel Farage so closely resembles a confused frog in his waders and wellies.
The effect of the weather on non-league football is much further down the list. Winter fixtures at these levels are always prone to postponements and abandonments; indeed, the first Tonbridge Angels game I attended back in 2006 was called off after 70 minutes, as the pitch was so waterlogged that the ball was literally floating. Yet these unprecedented conditions have led to a huge backlog of fixtures for many teams. Tonbridge have had to rearrange Conference South fixtures for Thursday nights because Tuesday nights are already fully booked to the end of the season.
This havoc is perilous to the finances, and therefore survival, of clubs up and down the country. We have played just 8 of the season’s 21 home league games, with many more postponed in the past few months. Consequently, with no revenue coming in, the club’s benefactors have had to dip into their own pockets to pay players. Although rescheduled weekday fixtures arguably have a better atmosphere than those on Saturday afternoons, they’re far less profitable, with crowds and bar takings down. This is bad enough for the Angels, who are solvent. Clubs with debts must be watching through their fingers.
Meanwhile the board and supporters of Maidstone United FC, Tonbridge’s rivals, must be feeling pretty smug about this panic. The club were the first in England to install a 3G/’plastic’ pitch at their ground of 2 years, The Gallagher Stadium. Where grass pitches are susceptible to frost or becoming waterlogged, plastic pitches are resilient to the caprices of the season. Accordingly, they’ve had no home games postponed this season.
Yet current rules state that these pitches are unacceptable in both the Football League and the Conference leagues, including the Conference South – the league for which Maidstone are aiming. Sitting top of the Ryman Premier table, they’re well on course for promotion this season. The Conference leagues voted to decide whether the rule should be overturned – but the result was a resounding defeat for the Stones. Their response to democracy? Threatening to sue the Conference.
But, given the weather, their arguments in favour of 3G pitches are clearer than ever. Fewer games postponed, more steady revenue, and opportunities to loan out the pitch, raking in up to £150,000 a season. Their persuasive response to the oft-made point that artificial pitches cause more injuries than grass – that there’ll be even more injuries from a three game a week, end of season fixture pile-up on grass – is even more convincing. Add to this the fact that a European Championship game between Russia and England was played on plastic, and outsiders must be bewildered as to why the Conference would turn down the proposal.
While there is little doubt at this level that 3G pitches are the future, it’s not as simple as it sounds. For a start, they’re not cheap. The FA gives out £150,000 grants for sustainable pitches, but they cost nearly half a million pounds to install, while necessary maintenance costs stand at over £100,000 a year. The cost of installing a pitch in the short term is far more crippling to teams than a few months of precarious weather. It’s not a debt that can be paid off quickly, either; Maidstone are making a profit of just over £180,000 a year from their pitch, but this is with average crowds of nearly 2,000 a game and a league-winning side. They still have debts of over £3.3 million, £2.8 million of which was accumulated on the stadium, to pay off. A change in financial circumstance could destroy the club – a club whose predecessor was wound up in 1992 for bankruptcy. Should the rules remain, they can only be promoted if they groundshare a grass pitch; previous groundshares have seen their crowds dwindle to a tenth of their current average.
Secondly, for as long as artificial pitches are unacceptable in the Football League and ‘proper’ rounds of the FA Cup, they will continue to be in the Conference. There is no point having a vote, or now a lawsuit, to overturn rules in the Conference if in a few years the same argument will need to be had all over again so the Football League will accept them.
Finally, until the threat of injury on them has been assessed long-term, there looms the threat of lawsuits from injured players that would further deplete a club’s finances.
Besides, despite their reasonable points, Maidstone have approached this unreasonably. Aside from shunning democratic decisions, they knew when installing their pitch that it was only acceptable in certain leagues: that they have waited to consult the Conference until the season in which they could have their promotion blocked is madness. As such, their righteous indignation at choosing between stagnation in the Ryman Premier or groundsharing evokes little sympathy.
Their lobbying group, 3G4US, also has dubious ulterior motives. While it has the support of 50 clubs across the football pyramid, one of its chief endorsements comes from FieldTurf, a company specialising in artificial pitches. It takes little effort to imagine the profits that they would make from the leagues embracing their wares.
I have no doubt that 3G pitches will become acceptable soon, as clubs such as Merthyr Tydfil and Harlow Town jump on the plastic bandwagon. But ultimately, the Conference and Football League need to work together, over a sensible timeframe, to work out the logistics and consequences of implementing this change. Until this has been achieved, Maidstone will have to grit their teeth and realise they should have looked before they leapt.
Anyone who knows me will think twice before inviting me out on a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening between July and April. Why? Am I a spy? A vampire? Not so. I’m merely watching 23 men run around a pitch at the Longmead Stadium of the Hildenborough end of Tonbridge, buried in the west Kentish suburbia. Yet whenever I mention Tonbridge Angels, my club of four seasons, people stare at me, goggle-eyed. “Tonbridge has a football team?” they ask in astonishment. Such is the curse of being affiliated with non-league football… or is it?
I’m inclined to make a tenuous link between non-league football and the underground music scene here; just take a look at Yeovil Town. Now stalwarts of League 1, football’s third tier, they began the 2011 season yesterday with a win. Yet fifteen years ago, they were Tonbridge’s opponents in the Isthmian League (now the Ryman Premier League) – this season will be only their eighth as a league side (a side that plays in one of these four divisions; the Premiership, the Championship, League 1 and League 2). Now comes the comparison; many of Yeovil’s fans have felt alienated by the jump to league football. It’s all too reminiscent of many a music fan moaning after their favourite band “sells out” and becomes a gleaming mainstream success. Indeed, when Tonbridge had their Longmead attendance record smashed when an FA Trophy fourth round game against AFC Wimbledon brought a crowd of 2,281 to the ground in 2008, my family had to arrive an hour earlier than usual to ensure our usual spot in the stand was saved. There were so many spectators that it was impossible for the fans to swap stands at half time, a non-league custom which may ring strange to league supporters. The queues for the two burger vans were immense, the Longmead Lounge – the ground’s pub – was overflowing and, in addition, the Angels were walloped 4 – 0. We complained about this after a paltry one game in this situation; it’s easy to see why the Yeovil hardcore were disgruntled by fair-weather fans sitting in their seats and babbling excitedly to their friends about how their team had been promoted to the Football League. It fits the mould of angry indie fans perfectly.
On the other hand, money in the team’s coffers leads to better players being bought, which –theoretically, at least – leads to better results. Money is the key to success. Although I’ve often fought against the assertion that Chelsea ‘bought’ the Premiership title, I have to admit that it’s a major reason for the club’s recent successes (though I stand firm on my perspective that a team can have excellent players, but without an excellent manager, the team cannot be worldbeaters – without Jose Mourinho and now Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea would have been in a Manchester City scenario; full of good players, but unable to gel cohesively to make a true challenge for the title… or will they? We shall see). For fans to get value for their money, in terms of silverware and style, more fans are needed to boost the club’s bank balance. As discovered last season, in the event of a fixture dead-end due to weather, non-league teams at least may be required to release or sell some of their best players to be able to continue paying others. And why? Because no games means no fans, which means no revenue.
Which leads me neatly onto my main point of this article. Anyone who has never been truly immersed in the non-league experience will be confused at this point, assuming that because they’ve never heard of the club, the club has next to no fans. The Angels have an average attendance of about 400 – above average for Step 3 (of non-league – comprising of the Evo-Stik Premier in the North, the Zamaretto Premier in the South-west and Midlands, and the Ryman Premier in the South-east). Some teams in our league in recent years have boasted regular crowds in four-figures (the now-Blue Square South Dartford), whereas some have pitiful two-figure crowds. But Tonbridge are in a healthy financial state, have a core of dedicated fans, and a coat of fair-weather ones. Those 400 know that non-league is not a Saturday version of Sunday kickabouts, held in parks with old and overweight men puffing and panting as they try to mistime a pass to their teammate. It’s a real league. The players may be part-timers, but the Ryman League is a fecund ground for new talent; three Angels players in the time I have been seeing them have made the jump to full-time football, with one moving to League One outfit Brentford (Leon Legge, who in his first season with them won the supporters’ Player Of The Year trophy and the Player Of The Round award for his FA Cup second-round performance in their game against Walsall). In fact, whilst most football followers may not have heard of the Ryman Premier, it is necessary to note that the most talked-about signing of the January transfer window this year was that of Chris Smalling to Manchester United from Fulham. Smalling had moved to The Cottagers the summer beforehand from Ryman Premier team Maidstone United… who are Tonbridge Angels’ main rivals.
So, what are you doing on September 4th? If you are in any way interested in football, you should be paying a visit to your local non-league club. The day is free from any Premiership or Championship fixtures, and has been dubbed ‘Non-League Day’ as part of an initiative to increase public interest in non-league football. Whether or not you decide to visit them again, you’re supporting the growth of grassroots football – the football whose virtues are loudly extolled by pundits and experts across the land, especially when the club has a youth academy (as the Angels do) – and indulging in a football habit that won’t break the bank; essential in a time of fragile economic standing. You never know, you may be surprised by the standard of football. Perhaps if that doesn’t measure up to expectations, you’ll find yourself embracing the banter and camaraderie within the stands, or enjoying the culinary finesse (incidentally, the Angels burgers are fantastic).
As for hijacking the Football League, a la Yeovil? Well, we did hold Brentford to a deserved draw in pre-season, and defeated the newly-League Two side Oxford United in the FA Trophy a few years ago. You have been warned.