Non league football is back! Last weekend I was thrilled – but also totally envious – to see fans up and down the country heading back to watch non league football. Having not been to a live match for five months, I realised I was now itching to get back. I needed to find a local non league match that didn’t clash with a Blackpool match. I put out an appeal on Twitter.
The invitations came in thick and fast…but the first match suggested that didn’t clash with Blackpool was a Friday night match: Trafford v Matlock Town. Hmm. I’d been to Trafford before with Chasetown, so this wouldn’t be a new ground. But it would be nice to return to somewhere from my Northern Premier League days, which I enjoyed so much.
This match did clash with a gig (Duke Special and Temperance Society Chip Bailey). Yes, dear reader, we have now got to the stage where the calendar is starting to fill up to the extent there are clashes! Duke had been a fine fortnightly companion throughout lockdown – and I had been looking forward to tonight’s gig with master-percussionist Chip – but football was always going to win this one. Hopefully the gig would appear on YouTube in the future.
It was thanks to the #LetFansIn movement that the DCMS and FA finally noticed non league football. They conceded that the guidance published a month earlier actually did allow for fans to attend matches from Steps 3 and below (not being classed as ‘elite sport’). The whole situation was a shambles, with non league seemingly falling down the back of the sofa and not really being noticed by the powers that be. Until they made themselves heard. Football is so important to so many people – not least for their mental health. Non league football might not be lucrative – but some things are more important than money.
As the week progressed, I found myself getting more and more excited about Friday’s match. We had been in touch with our new friends at Trafford and they were keen for Lee to film on the night. It would make a refreshing change to film without the underlying threat of officious stewards.
On Friday morning I woke up with that matchday buzz. I confess this took me completely by surprise. I’d forgotten it was a thing! I sprang out of bed, sang my head off in the shower and was so excited all day – I couldn’t wait to set off!
This did confuse me a bit. I hadn’t felt like this ahead of any of the Blackpool matches I was watching on tv and that was my team. Why was I getting this buzz for a match between two teams I had no affiliation with? And a pre-season friendly at that? Was it because it was football? Actual live football? Do I love football itself more than I love Blackpool? Are Blackpool in danger of losing me (again) if they don’t let me in soon? Perhaps I was also excited because we were actually going somewhere. We hadn’t left Blackpool for five months and tonight we were going on an adventure – a road trip.
I had remembered earlier to ask Alexa for the weather forecast in Manchester tonight. She said it would be 8C. Hmm that wasn’t warm. Further reference to the Trafford Twitter account revealed potential for rain. I dressed accordingly, with jumper and big coat – and also took my fabulous light sabre umbrella.
At 4.30pm we were getting ready to leave the house. What did we need? What was our pre-match routine? It had been five months – we couldn’t remember! It took us 15 minutes to get out of the house and on the road.
Ah a road trip! How wonderful! Lee asked me to find an appropriate playlist for the journey – something to get us fired up for the match. Hmm. What was my matchday playlist? I scrolled through my playlists – and there it was: my Driving playlist. Having not driven in several months (pretty much since I moved to Blackpool), I had forgotten about that! And what a playlist it is! There was rock n roll, Starsailor (who played in my living room earlier this week in an online gig), Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra…
Now, dear reader, do you remember all those journeys I made up and down the M6 last season, when I was still living in Walsall – and the trouble I had with the music in my car? Sometimes I could connect my phone to my car to play my own music but, more often than not, it wasn’t having any of it and I was forced to listen to the radio instead…and I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the traffic announcements, which drove me crazy.
Now, I only have to sit in the car (with my phone about my person) for my music to start playing. Automatically. With no fuss. After all that drama for all those months!
As we bopped down the motorway at rush hour on a Friday (another bane of my life during my lengthy commute), we were pleased to note the roads were pretty quiet – a sign of the (new) times. That was very pleasing. Within 45 minutes we found ourselves heading into Trafford.
But woah what’s that on the left of the motorway? Dinosaurs?! Oh why hadn’t we set off earlier?! It was an outdoor dinosaur adventure golf course. It looked AMAZING and I’ll definitely be factoring that in on a future visit to Manchester.
We came off the motorway and Waze directed us towards the ground. I warned Lee that non league grounds can be tricky to find (often hidden behind houses) but we saw a park and managed to locate the ground with little trouble. We parked up on the car park and were immediately greeted with the sound of music rocking from inside Shawe View, the home of Trafford FC. Blimey – they’ve got a better PA system than Blackpool! And they were banging out some belting tunes. I love being roused by music on arrival at a ground – it really does get you fired up for the match.
We saw a couple of dogs on the car park and I hoped there would be some at the match tonight too. The players and staff were also arriving now and I was immediately transported back to my Chasetown days. Back then, I would have travelled to the game with Dave the Kitman and Birty the goalkeeping coach – and I would be helping them carry the kit through to the away dressing room. When I saw the kit being carried through tonight, I confess I found it hard to stop myself offering to help!
Our first encounter with a Trafford native involved us being shot in the head. Well, we weren’t expecting that! This was our first experience of a temperature check, one of the safety precautions that Trafford had put in place to allow fans into the match.
On entry into the ground, Foxy remembered me from my Chasetown days. I felt immediately at home here. Lee was warmly greeted by Kev, who talked him through all the people he had arranged for him to interview tonight – including a post-match interview with the manager. What a difference to being at a league match! Lee was in his element and headed off on filming duty.
As for me? Well, I did what I always did on arrival at a non league ground. I took a moment to savour my surroundings. No matter what non league ground I was at – whether I had been there before or was visiting for the first time – it felt like home to me. I had been here before. I remembered the immaculate pitch. I sat on a stone step at the side of the pitch, feeling so thankful to be here, back at football. Never would I take this for granted.
I was greeted with smiles and hellos from every direction – from complete strangers who were my family now because we were here together at football. I can’t begin to explain how special it feels to be part of this non league football family. You simply don’t get this in the league. It’s not quite the same.
I was joined by a volunteer who tended to the perimeter grass, who chatted away to me like we were old friends who did this every week, although we’d never met before.
I always like to do a circuit of the ground. Of course there’s no segregation at this level, so we have that freedom to explore the whole ground. Here’s what I found:
At the end of my circuit I found the bar. Hurrah! There was a social distancing queueing system in place but I was the only customer at this early time, so I followed the markings on the floor on a circuitous route to the bar.
The barmaid was really friendly and we chatted as she poured my pint of Bodds. She said that frantic work had been done in two days to get the club ready for their first match last Saturday. I have every respect for the volunteers who keep non league football running. They all do it for the love of the game and it really is such a special community.
The PA announcer regularly stated the rules that were in place for tonight. Social distancing should be adhered to – two metres where possible. Flying footballs should not be handled and thrown back onto the pitch – instead they would be collected and sanitised by appropriate persons. I noticed masks weren’t commonplace, but there was the odd one, mainly worn by the older spectators.
My next stop was the refreshment kiosk. I wasn’t hungry – we’d had a late lunch and had eaten sweets in the car on the way here – but I needed to try out the food at the ground. It was, after all, tradition and part of the football culture. Also, it was early enough into the campaign – after five months off – for me to not remember how bad food at the football can be. And to attempt to eat at every ground I visit so I can report on it to you, dear reader. You may recall I didn’t even make it into September before giving up last year, but I have resolved to try harder this season. After all, the clubs need all the revenue they can get. I opted for the burger.
“Do you want cheese and onions with that?”
“Ooh yes please!”
“Any red sauce, brown sauce or mustard?”
“Err…(decisions, decisions)…red sauce please.”
“Ooh are those penny sweets?”
“Yes, they’re 40p.”
“Ooh can I have a bag of those as well please?”
Penny sweets! Yet another reason to love non league football! I hadn’t had these at a game since the pre-season visit to Longridge last year.
I managed to eat about half the burger (it was lovely but I simply didn’t have room for all of it) and I think one of the penny sweets before Lee got hold of them.
Lee was in his element, filming interviews with volunteers and fans as well as some match action. I was in my element, too, back home with the non league family. What a wonderful night this was proving to be already…and we hadn’t even got to the match yet!
I sat back down on the concrete step, observing the people around me as they entered the ground. The players were unmistakeably players, as they have that look, that haircut. There were players who were the spit of players at Chasetown from my time there. The same could be said of the fans. Trafford had their own versions of Lamby and Coxy from Chasetown. And – look – here was a non league dog!
Trafford were permitted a maximum of 200 fans in the ground tonight. They had sold 150 tickets online (which sold out in a matter of hours) and 50 on the gate. It’s great that there is demand for tickets and I hope this continues going forward. From September, they will be allowed 300 fans in, then later 400. I hope they continue to reach capacity (which is, of course, a social distanced reduced capacity for the time being).
So onto the match. I spent the first half doing another circuit of the ground, not settling on any one spot from which to watch the match. I breathed in all the familiar aromas of non league football: the burgers, the Bovril and the cigarettes (proper fags – no fruity vapes here). Trafford had an absolute giant at centre half. There were no goals in the first half but there was a great atmosphere thanks to the Trafford fans behind the goal.
Interestingly, the players remained on the pitch at half time, as opposed to returning to the dressing rooms, as they would have done historically. I’m not sure this will go down too well when the weather starts pinching, but it was mild tonight, contrary to the forecasts. It had spat a bit before kick off, so I had put my hat on, but there was no need for the brolly. That said, I was finding it useful to lean on as I was standing throughout the match.
Now no awayday review of mine will ever be complete without the loo review. Nothing to complain about here. Toilet roll, hand wash, paper towels and hand sanitiser were all available. There was even air freshener and a coat hook, so bonus points to Trafford.
In the second half we joined the vocal support and our experience was all the better for doing so. They were such a friendly and funny bunch. The match picked up, too. There were a couple of brawls (well handbags, really, but it’s a quality feature of a non league ‘friendly’) – and a couple of cracking goals for Trafford. Matlock Town subbed their keeper for a younger model, who surprised us all by being brilliant! He was very shouty and pulled off a magnificent save right in front of us. The Trafford fans were complimentary and said he should expect to start on Saturday, which the young lad looked chuffed about.
The final whistle blew and Trafford came out 2-0 winners against a team from a division higher. They were value for it, too.
The music continued after the match and I confess I was disappointed that no-one was singing along to Sweet Caroline. I tried to make my own disco by turning on the lights on my umbrella and dancing a bit, but it seems I was on my own. I had a bit of a hurty back now, too, after standing up throughout the match. I’d forgotten that was one of the perils of pre-season – learning to stand up for two hours at a time without it hurting.
When Lee had finished his post-match filming, we headed back to the car. What an ace night that had been! We had been made to feel so very welcome and had enjoyed every minute of our visit.
Here’s Lee’s video of the night:
Dear reader, I cannot recommend non league football highly enough. Your local team needs you now more than ever, after months on end of no income, with bills to pay. Please help them. They are such a vital part of the community. If you have never been to watch your local team please just go. You never know, you might just fall in love with them. They are friendly, welcoming and inclusive, it doesn’t cost much to get in – and they will be delighted to have you there – as a fan or a volunteer. You matter to your local club. Your local club matters.