With humongous transfer fees, gigantic sponsorship deals and ginormous broadcasting rights being common place in the Premier League it’s easy to forget about the grass roots football that is abundant throughout England. The Premier League is said to be one of the most exciting and competitive leagues in the world so the lower levels of English football have a lot to live up to but do they make the cut?
In the past month I have been to watch my local team Tonbridge Angels Football Club, who can be found in The Bostik League, play twice. The first game I saw was a closely fought 1-0 victory against Wingate and Finchley and the second match was a slightly scrappy 2-1 defeat to Tooting and Mitcham United. Both matches were very different to what I usually experience being a Tottenham season ticket holder but both games were very enjoyable.
The first difference that you’ll notice to the Premier League is the style of football played in The Bostik League. This is a league torrent with long balls, physicality and fighting for headers. Unlike the Premier League, there is hardly any room for passing play or trying to be clever with tricks and flicks. Route one is the only way. Teams are found playing the classic 4-4-2 formation, there’s no time for wing backs and three central defenders here. However, do not get me wrong, this style of football is not boring it’s the absolute opposite. It’s refreshing to see men not afraid of a crunching tackle or going in for a 50/50 unlike the pretty boys that can be found in the Premier League. At no point across the two matches did I think that the quality of football was not good enough, in I fact I found myself completely forgetting I was watching a team 147 places below the Premier League leaders. Going into the first game I expected to see football of the lowest of quality with players having a cigarette at half time like it was the 1980’s but I was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism and quality the teams showed. The Bostik League is one of physicality and competitiveness, it is most definitely not boring.
Now let’s talk pricing. With matchday tickets in the Prem rising higher and higher and a burger and chips costing me £10.80 at Wembley, it’s a pleasure to be able to attend a game and eat for less than £20. To see the mighty Tonbridge Angels play it costs £10 for adults, it’s an extra £1 for a seat, for a burger it only costs £3 and parking is free! The whole afternoon only cost me £14, that’s less than the price of the train ticket to even reach Wembley. In comparison to just park at Wembley for a Premier League match between Tottenham and Crystal Palace it costs £40. The price of attending first division games is becoming ludicrous so non-league matches are becoming more and more appealing to the average football fan.
Being a fan of a Premier League club can leave you feeling disconnected with foreign owners and the top most secrecy around the running of the club, but this is not the case at Tonbridge. Something I noticed is that all the fans call the players by their first names and this may not seem like a big deal but to me it shows the main difference between non-league and the Premier League. Players aren’t seen as gods who are better than the average fan with their mind-blowing salaries, but the Tonbridge players are normal people. This kind of connection the fans have with the players can be seen once again as the players exit the pitch via the tunnel. Here small children huddle holding out their hands for high fives and congratulating the players, which is something you just wouldn’t see in the Premier League. Something I found especially touching occurred after Tooting and Mitcham United had secured a rare away win where the Tooting players ran to the few away fans that made the trip and physically embraced them one by one with hugs and high fives. Premier League players do not have enough respect for the fans because without them the beautiful game would not be so beautiful.
Attending a Tonbridge game was a real treat for me as there was a lovely vibe in the Longmead Stadium. If I had children I would feel much more comfortable bringing them to a Tonbridge Angels game than a Tottenham game. I did not hear any swearing from the crowd of 549 people nor was there any real aggression displayed which is something I’ve sadly become hardened to attending Premier League games most weekends. There was a real family atmosphere about the place. Another thing that was lovely to see was the elderly men, who had obviously been supporting Tonbridge for years, sat at the front in their full Tonbridge Angels attire. Each one sat down and said hello to their fellow fans who they sit with every week, this kind of companionship formed through football is a true rarity in the Premier League. Furthermore, throughout both matches I attended I didn’t see a single person film or take pictures of the match (apart from me as I needed pictures for this article and yes, I see the irony) which is very refreshing when compared to the Premier League. Most games now are full of tourists wearing their half and half scarves and watching the game behind their phone screen but at Tonbridge it was real football fans.
To sum up my experience of non-league football, I had a fantastic time and I really appreciated the change from the Premier League. Now, of course, I saw things that you’d only see lower down in the football ladder like a goalkeeper taking a throw in, an own goal as a defender attempted to clear the ball but merely hit his own teammate in the face and the ball dribbled into their net. Nevertheless, I also saw some great things that you’d only see in non-league football. I saw fans walk round the pitch at half time to be behind their team’s goal, I saw children playing football just behind the pitch being inspired by the players and I saw players running up to their wives, children and family after the game to be congratulated. Sometimes we can become too disconnected from the roots of the game as the money in the Premier League keeps rising and rising to new lofty heights. Football should be a game we can all enjoy, and we can all be involved in, it definitely should not be not an industry that is money fuelled and unattainable for the majority of fans. I highly recommend that you visit your local team.