Confession. I’m a long-standing Aston Villa supporter but lately, my heart has found a home with another team who play in claret and blue.
Villa is woven deep into the fabric of my soul – a blessing and a burden in equal measures, it often feels like, especially given the club’s demise and troubles in recent years. I wasn’t born anywhere near the Holte End, but I was raised as a Villa fan, cherishing every visit to the Birmingham home of my grandparents and bathing in that comforting, warm, accent. Every trip to Villa Park, accompanied by my Dad, was special. And, even though the team has fallen from grace, it still is. When that famous old stadium comes into view, it still makes me catch my breath; I doubt that will ever change.
And yet, it can be draining supporting Villa. The recent seasons of struggle in the Premier League, culminating in one of the most miserable relegations of all time, followed by the toil of the Championship. The crushing need for promotion is hammered home week in, week out but it’s a fiercely competitive league with what seems like a dozen teams at least in with a shot; odds from the likes of Betway and other bookies reflect what a wide-open field it is.
Villa are now in a third season of pursuing promotion, churning through player after player and indulging a recruitment policy that feels more scattergun than strategic. If Villa do go up, what awaits? The Premier League, where clubs need to spend million upon million just to stand still. Forgive me if it can all feel a bit distant and artificial, at times.
Half a mile away from my home, the football feels very real. Deeping Rangers play in the United Counties Premier Division, which is level five in the non-league pyramid. I’ve got a strong connection with Rangers. I played junior and youth football there, and a solitary season at senior level until injury knocked me off course. My younger brother played there for several years. I’ve coached junior teams there, in two separate spells, following in the footsteps of my Dad, who coached there too, leading a team from U10 all the way to U18. I went to school with the current first team manager; he was in the year below me. He was also a far superior footballer.
So, there’s an affinity there, as you might expect for the football club in your modest home town. But aside from everything else, the football itself – and the matchday experience – is just enjoyable.
This may sound patronising to clubs like Rangers and others in and around the same level, but there’s an authenticity to non-league football. It’s gritty, humorous (a quality shared by many a non-league club), honest and, technically, quite a bit better than you might expect, if you’re just purely judging from the outside. Certainly, in the case of Deeping, the stuff I’ve watched over the past two seasons – I went to 23 matches in 2017-18 – has been very easy on the eye, indeed. Football played on the front foot, quick passing, fantastic movement off the ball, one-touch play.
I can watch Villa play with ten men behind the ball for long periods, deploying Steve Bruce’s tiresome ‘let’s nick a goal and keep it tight’ approach, or observe Deeping playing with comparative joy and freedom. I can watch the players warm up from a matter of yards away, smell the freshly-mown turf, clearly hear the crunch of a tackle and that sweet sound of the ball being perfectly struck. If I stroll around to other side of the pitch, I can stand next to the dugouts, and hear the chatter – sometimes the shouting – of the coaching team.
Let’s get this straight. It’s not park football, watching by one man (me) and a dog. Deeping have a main stand, with other standing spectator areas covered, a newly-extended café bar, hospitality room, turnstiles, admission prices, a matchday programme, and – best of all – same seriously cool ‘goal music’. The team line-ups are written on a whiteboard, pinned up near the tea bar. The club chairman doubles as the stadium announcer, updating on forthcoming fixtures, substitutions and other stuff. The groundsman, who keeps the pitch in superb condition, season-round, was my first coach when I joined the club as a ten-year-old.
It’s a club striving to prosper and grow, but even taking the next step up – to Level 4, in Deeping’s case – requires a massive effort on and off the pitch. That’s why I’m more than happy to pay my £6 entrance fee every home game. That’s why I take my teenage son with me to the majority of matches. That’s why, when the club unveil a new badge or repaint the main stand, I’m genuinely excited.
Watching non-league football is a pleasure. I’ve become hooked on it and I know I’m not alone. As Matt Badcock wrote here, you can’t beat watching football live, especially as TV coverage becomes more disparate and expensive, and attending a top-flight fixture moves further out of reach. This interview with Times journalist George Caulkin struck a chord with me at the time and resonates still. ‘I get most pleasure… from going to the odd non-league games, getting there at five to three and getting a cup of tea or a pint… and just stand there and watch,’ he said.
If you’ve got a non-league club close to home, get yourself down there. October 13th provides the perfect opportunity – it’s designated Non League Day, when there’s no Premier League or Championship football.