I write today having had my eyes opened wider to another side of football. Non-League. I'm not talking about the likes of Grimsby Town or Chester- more the teams whose players take on another part time job and can recall every name of the less than 100 fans that go and watch every week.
I say opened wider, because having visited non-league football before, I do know what it's all about. But, on Saturday I witnessed the same lower standard football, cold weather and small ground, yet left with both a bubble in my heart and a stab in the chest.
My first game for Nottingham Forest was in 2001 away at Crystal Palace. I remember leaving that game filled with an emotion that I'd never felt before. Of course I feel that feeling all the time now, but back then, I didn't understand the world of football. I've grown into it and witnessed some of the best and most miserable days of my life. Every football fan wants the very best for their team, as do I, but with the way that football is heading, the prospect of a successful future for my club fills me with a dread that my club would never be the same again.
On Saturday, I attended Thamesmead Town vs Cheshunt, a Ryman League Division One North fixture. It was a cold, miserable day. I stood on a stand with a few seats and a bar. The ground was small yet modern in places; the wind was blowing a gale at times and the fine rain managed to hit us even from underneath the stand roof. There were approximately 90 people in attendance and a muddy cut up field of a pitch that held 22 young men playing their hearts out. The refereeing standard is apparently appalling at whichever level you grace your presence at and I do admit that it is incredibly strange visiting a football ground with a glass cabinet for a club shop.
Honestly? It was fantastic. The people I attended with, Richard and Jamie Green are regular attendees for Mead, and prior to the game were filling me in on how the club worked, the people that helped it run and why they enjoyed going so much. Within minutes of the game starting, I already understood exactly what they were trying to describe to me.
The simplicity of everything involved with Mead, and other non-league clubs in general is incredible. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone talks and greets each other like old friends. The players are encouraged to communicate with fans and everyone chips in to do their bit. There's a real sense of community and family; a real network of friendships.
I was asked after the game, "Do you see why we enjoy it?"
The better question would be, how can anyone not enjoy it?
The standard of football isn't brilliant admittedly, but for the first time in as long as I can remember, I saw two full teams of football players, regardless of age, talent and standard, give everything they had. And when it was over they had drinks in the bar with the fans. It left a really good feeling inside; a "bubble" that said I really enjoyed the game and that I would definitely go again.
But, then came the stab in the chest. I know what modern football entails, I know what it is and how it impacts football fans, but seeing the simplicity of the non-league game left me feeling deflated about the football I go to watch. I love Forest and I love the sport. However, it's no secret that every season that goes by, football is changing, and now at an even more alarming rate. Some of the changes are okay, don't get me wrong, but the passion and love for the game is slowly disappearing.
Football has no soul. Or very little.
Sometimes you'll hear football fans describe some players as "loyal" and that they "play for the club". I say it a lot about Forest captain Chris Cohen. But, how has it come to the point that we don't say it about all of the players? Why is it now we can single out a good player because he cares about the club that he plays for? Surely all players should want to play for the team they're representing. Surely they would want to give their all, and when it pays off, for it to mean something. Surely all players should feel let down if they've lost and gutted if they're not making it into the team.
The harsh reality is that the overall mentality of football players in the higher leagues in modern day just isn't good enough. They don't have to try if they don't want to. It's just another club, another game, another pay-packet. The lads on the pitch on Saturday cared and cared a lot for that.
Is this to do with the ridiculous amounts of money that is being pumped into the higher leagues? I can't say for sure, but probably. The football fan is now a customer. Each £5 that you spend on a mug, £45 on a shirt, £400 plus on a season ticket, £40 an away day (if you're lucky)... It's just income. Clubs are run like businesses which, okay, they may technically be businesses, but due to the unwavering love the large percentage have for our clubs, the businesses are taking advantage of their consumers by charging too much for the goods on offer.
Recently, Leeds United charged adults £37 for their game against Forest. Add this to the cost of travel, food, drink and any other additional costs, you're looking £60+ for a second tier fixture. Last year, Norwich City charged Derby County £40 for their fixture, and Derby charged Leeds United £42 for "buy on day". When does it end? When is it enough? There is a big price on loyalty, a price which the working class can't pay, even though football is supposedly the 'working mans game'.
Then there's the matter of television deals. My club so far have been on television on ten occasions up to yet, two of those fixtures in December just before Christmas. Wolves away was moved to a Friday night, and then the following Monday night we were expected to travel to Blackburn. Our boxing day fixture wasn't on boxing day, instead a 4:30pm kick off on the 27th. It took Leeds themselves three months into the new season to have a home Saturday 3pm fixture. I ask once more, where will it end?
Between crazy rich owners, media outrages and transfer fees reaching crazy new levels how far can you push it before the game really does fall apart? Attendances are dropping; fans have had enough. There's protesting at a different club every week, winding up order over here, clubs entering administration over there... you're not allowed to stand up, you can't buy beer at half time in some grounds... When did football get so complicated?
If by some miracle Forest become good again one day, I fear that I will be priced out of supporting the club I love. I fear that like many other teams have, we will turn into an empty shell being run in the wrong way, placed in a soulless bowl football ground and given clappers to make an atmosphere. Forest fans are infamous for "living in the past", but I'd currently rather clinch onto the good old days than imagine where football could end up in the next 20 years. In the 14 years since that game at Selhurst I've already seen how quickly football is changing. I much prefer to visit the clubs who remember who they are, where they came from and the traditions they've always had; they're the games that stick in my mind... "remember when we scored that goal at Peterborough and the terrace went mad..."
Visiting Thamesmead on Saturday really showed the flaws that are appearing in professional football. The standard may not be as good, but the feel good factor certainly is worth it. And the best bit? Each penny that gets spent is actually making a difference to the club and to the local community. Now that really is being a part of something, even if it is small. The club is lovely, the ground is brilliant for the level of football that they compete at and once again, each player gives everything they have.
I will always first and foremost support Forest and this isn't me complaining about how bad the game is or saying everyone should go to watch non-league. I'm merely saying that I can certainly see why people prefer it. It's a personal level of football, a different type of passion, but a strong one all the same. It really peels back the complexities of modern football and strips it down to the "down the park" traditional football, which despite not being pretty football, is quite heart warming. If people wonder what's happened to the heart and soul of football, it's still there, you just have to look further down.
Unfortunately Thamesmead lost 2-1, but it was a fantastic day all the same. Everyone I met or was introduced to were extremely friendly and welcoming, the players were lovely and the day as a whole was thoroughly enjoyable. I wish Thamesmead all the best in future games and I do hope to return to watch them again when I can.