Non-league football has its annual day in the sun this Saturday when football fans across the country are urged to support their real, local team.
With England engaged in a meaningless European Championships qualifier and both the Barclays Premier League and the Sky Bet Championship taking a break, the grassroots game steps into the spotlight.
Now in its sixth consecutive year, Non-League Day has grown from a small Internet movement into one of the most anticipated days in the football calendar. And 40,000 semi-professional and amateur clubs across the country, including the twq in the heart of Belper, will welcome with open arms the extra attention and publicity the day promises to bring.
Some will aim to attract new fans with discounted admission and shrewd promotional initiatives, while others will show what an important role truly local football clubs play within their communities.
For instance, Belper Town, who play in Division One South of Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, are marking their home game at Christchurch Meadow on Non-League Day by showing their commitment to the worthy charity, Prostate Cancer UK.
“We tend not to go in for any of the gimmickry associated with Non-League Day,” said Town director Dave Laughlin. “Instead we concentrate on something that has a financial benefit to a charity that has strong links with football. We will have a bucket collection during our game. Last year, we raised several hundred pounds.”
Non-League Day was initially set up in 2010 by QPR fan James Doe as a social media experiment after he had been inspired by a pre-season trip to Devon to watch Rangers play at Tavistock. It is now backed by dozens of professional clubs, MPs, celebrities, media organisations, charities and, most importantly, by non-league clubs themselves, such as Belper Town and Belper United.
Always scheduled to coincide with an international break in the fixture-list, Non-League Day provides a platform to push the importance of a brand of football that is affordable and largely run by tireless volunteers.
The level of skill will never compare to that seen at Old Trafford or the Emirates Stadium. But the experiences fans gain at small, often obscure, grounds cannot be matched.
For example, you can often stand or sit anywhere in the ground, while after the game, you can rub shoulders with the players in the clubhouse. One of the day’s ambassadors, Nina Gerstenberger, goes so far as to say: “Non-league clubs provide the foundation of a nation’s football culture”.
This year’s Non-League Day poignantly coincides with a campaign against rising ticket prices at professional games. If you pop along to Belper Town’s match against Daventry Town on Saturday (kick-off 3 pm), you won’t even need a ticket. Just hand over £9 (concessions £5) and treat yourself to an afternoon of entertainment, raw and true.
The price certainly compares favourably to the £30 that some Derby County fans have to cough up for home games, and Laughlin is sure supporters get full value for money.
“It’s a lot less expensive,” said Laughlin. “The standard of football is obviously not as good, but there is a friendly atmosphere and it is a lot more informal.
“Our facilities here at Belper are as good as you’ll find anywhere outside Derby County. You can even have a drink with the players afterwards.
“Non-League Day is such a good idea because it gives the supporters of the bigger clubs the opportunity to see what we have to offer.”