England is regarded by many – even the sport’s international governing body – as the home of football.
But working out such grand titles isn’t just about the game’s history. Nor is it about the country hosting the world’s richest domestic football league in the Premier League and football behemoths such as Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and more.
Oh no, it’s what happens underneath the professional game.
The National League System of non-league amateur clubs in England is a staple of the game below the 92 Premier League and EFL clubs. It is home to 58 leagues and 84 divisions – and that is before you consider the youth, ladies, Sunday and midweek leagues that all wrack up behind and below.
It means thousands of clubs spend each year managing football players, providing facilities and making sure the beautiful game is something to be enjoyed for those who want to get involved.
But despite such high numbers, the job of running a non-league club is harder than ever – be it at the sharp end of the National League against those wanting a professional return, to those genuinely happy with just taking part.
Here are seven tough challenges those clubs now face…
1 Finding players is no easy matter – never mind them being available
Be it pressures on people’s time, the fear of coming up against a tough tackling midfielder, an inability to regularly commit or some of the other issues we’re about to mention, non-league clubs have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years – 3,000 clubs have folded in the five years from 2007.
The increasing popularity of five-a-side football and futsal are stepping into the traditional 11-a-side void, while initiatives like the introduction of rolling substitutions have also tried to reverse the recent trend.
Simply put, without the players – and then those willing to help manage, run and organise the clubs – the sport is a lost cause.
2 Bank-rolling and recklessness is far from the preserve of the Premier League
It’s quite clear what the impact has been on professional clubs in a number of European leagues. Paris St Germain won the 2015-16 Ligue Un title embarrassing early, while the Premier League’s wealth continues to draw some of the world’s wealthiest sport investors.
But the money – and sometimes financial recklessness too – is not restricted to the professional game.
From a Salford City club now owned by the former Manchester United heroes known as the Class of 92, to numerous other clubs on the fringes of the EFL – along with others who have made it into the professional ranks – there is more money than ever in the amateur game. It’s just concentrated in small pockets.
Non-league clubs are under pressure to find ways to compete with clubs that have bottomless pits of money. If you think that’s hard to do in the Premier League, just imagine tackling that further down the ranks.
3 It’s far from simple staying afloat yourself
At a time when land is so valuable, non-league clubs are under pressure to use what they’ve got properly – including things as fundamental as their pitch.
And that is a significant issue when so many clubs don’t have someone writing a blank cheque each season and instead, it’s 12 months of scraping together every penny they can.
All football clubs have a role to play in their communities. Various grants and non-governmental organisations are keen to help out – like Sport England. Any club needs to make the most of every opportunity – providing it helps them fulfil their role.
4 The world is getting smaller – unless you are a football club
At a time when the top clubs will fly 20 minutes to an away fixture and competitions span ever increasing geography, it feels like some of the bigger non-league clubs are done few favours over their travel arrangements. Suffolk coastal town Lowestoft have had to play in the northern half of the non-league’s second tier – and they were far from the only ones.
Further down the order, clubs are turning down promotions to save themselves both bigger travel bills and the need to ask even more from players – who don’t forget, are already in short supply.
It all poses a fundamental question: What’s the point in playing, if you don’t really fancy the prize?
5 It’s all about the next generation
Football is big business – and that means a lot of people want a slice. The rapid increase in private football academies and soccer schools now sits alongside professional clubs desperate to process as many young players as possible so they can unearth that one true diamond.
Non-league clubs feel that pressure too. Every club wants to have players buy into its set-up as early as possible, as well as unlocking the funding, good will and respect that comes alongside girls’ and women’s teams.
But be it adding teams or starting from scratch with your own club, it all comes with a lot of work and plenty of cost – be it money or time.
6 You need to protect what you’ve got
No matter how big or small it is, a football club is a proud being. Proud of its people, its supporters, its players and its facilities. And whether money is raised by volunteers or a rich owner, clubs will want to look like the real deal, from changing rooms with good showers to a playing surface resembling a bowling pitch and goalposts that look just like the ones at Wembley.
As well as shelling out the money to bring those in, it all needs the maintenance from individuals, the ability for those facilities to bring in more revenue and the security of keeping it all safe from theft and available to use – hopefully bringing in more of those players for all age groups for years to come.
7 Competing with the television
When non-league clubs were originally taking over the world, it was the ideal fix for football fans who wanted to do it themselves rather than watch the action live at a stadium.
Now of course, the football TV landscape is very different. With a top-class football match from somewhere in the world broadcast live on your screen almost every day, is it really as appealing to do the playing yourself?
It’s a question plenty have answered with the word no – but annual initiatives such as Non-League Day are at least trying to redress.
Article: Lee Carnihan (@leecarnihan)