Non-League Day: Grassroots football takes centre stage
From Cornwall to Northumberland and at all points in between throughout the country, fans of Premier League and Championship clubs are being urged to support Non-League Day this weekend.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 06/09/13 9:42am
It is a rare occasion when the spotlight turns away from England's top flight, with the star names of the top 20 clubs jetting to all points across the globe to represent their respective countries.
With the international calendar having shifted in recent years - mainly to accommodate the demands of Europe's leading clubs - the fixtures now take place on Friday evening, rather than the previous Saturday slot.
That leaves a huge swathe of football fans across England without their regular fix of football at 3pm on Saturday with the entire Premier League and Championship schedule shutting down until September 14.
But far from the domestic game being thrust into darkness, there is an opportunity this weekend for supporters to step away from all-seater stadia, official matchday magazines and corporate hospitality and support the grassroots of the game.
Saturday marks the latest Non-League Day, an event which only began in 2010 as the brainchild of founder James Doe, a supporter of QPR and Harrow Borough, and was initially targeted at a few friends on Facebook and Twitter, but now boasts support from throughout the football pyramid, with clubs, players, managers and pundits all lending their support.
"I'd gone to the West Country to watch QPR in a pre-season game at Tavistock and they had pulled out all the stops. It struck me that this was clearly a big deal, the money made from the game was clearly going to set them up for a good part of the season and that stuck in my mind," Doe told Sky Sports.
Mousehole to Alnwick
"A few weeks later I went to watch Harrow Borough and they were running a fundraiser to get floodlight bulbs and I was struck by how hard-up they must be to have to do something like that.
"I put two-and-two together from those games and thought 'there are always fans out there, we've got to get them in somehow'. I realised with England playing on a Friday night, it meant the weekend was completely free and there were all these fans out there without a game to go to.
"I set it up on Facebook and on Twitter amongst friends and it became a bit viral and spread pretty quickly. To set something up on your PC at home and then to find out that the crowd nationally on the same day the year before had gone up 12 per cent, that was quite gobsmacking."
From the tip of Cornwall, where Mousehole are taking on Helston Athletic in the South West Peninsula League, to the North East of England where Alnwick Town tackle Albion Sports in the FA Vase, there are games within striking distance for supporters across the land and they can all be found with the Non-League Day match finder.
The initial aim of the event was to raise additional funds for cash-strapped sides in the grassroots, while Doe believes that the opportunities on offer from clubs around the country can benefit many people in the local community.
"The first thing was to get money in because times were tough for a lot of teams - and they still are," he explains. "We've seen Kettering Town in all kinds of trouble this week. A lot of people don't know there are these great little teams on their doorstep.
"The atmosphere is totally different, it's a lot cheaper, it's more friendly, you get the chance to meet the players, it's very easy to become a volunteer for the clubs.
"A lot of people could get some great work experience with non-league clubs. They don't realise that there's this great resource and experience out there that people can have."
It may be an event to celebrate the grassroots, but Non-League Day has captured the imagination of even the biggest Premier League clubs, with Arsenal helping out with the offer of luxury transport for one of their neighbours.
Doe said: "For the second year running Arsenal have loaned their team bus to Boreham Wood so that they can go to their away game in comfort and luxury. This year we have also got lots of players to come and back us - Jamie Carragher is probably the most high profile. Martin Tyler is our principal ambassador and he is doing lots of good work for us.
"One club is actually paying people 5p to come and watch - Bungay Town in Suffolk - they've been making quite a few headlines with that story.
"People are coming over from places like the Netherlands to take part in our event, they do every year, it's becoming a bit of an international event. We want to make Non-League Day a proper permanent fixture that everybody knows about - like the Boat Race - so that it is just in people's consciousness."
With much hand-wringing and angst currently enveloping the upper echelons of football over the future prospects of the England side amidst a flood of foreign talent into the Premier League, it is worth remembering that not every international is nurtured at a top-flight academy awash with high level facilities.
Doe said: "The primary example you can quote is Chris Smalling - he's now an England squad member and with Manchester United. He was playing for Maidstone in non-league not that long ago and he has been spotted and made it right to the top.
"Players can continue to be developed that might be missed by the big teams, or given a second chance in some cases and given another go. You hear a lot of stories of players rejected by the bigger clubs and then turned it around in non-league and gone back up again - Charlie Austin for example.
"It's very important for the game."