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The Non-League Football Paper

State of the game: Football’s all about people!

Ahead of next season’s league reshuffle, the Northern Premier League’s long-serving chairman, Mark Harris, outlines some of his objectives on how to help grow the game more at Steps 3-4.

 

IT’S QUITE SIMPLE; OUR LEVEL OF FOOTBALL, AND I AM TALKING AT STEP 3-4, NEEDS MORE MONEY FROM THE TOP END OF THE GAME AND FROM THE FA… 

We are not talking about full-time professionals here or guys who earn a lot of money in the National League. These players have got houses; they’ve got mortgages, all of those things. Quite rightly we talk about the pressure on the fan’s pocket, but we don’t often consider the pressure on the player and the player’s well-being.

 

IF THE FA COULD DO SOMETHING WITH BETTER FUNDING, IT WOULD BE LIFE-CHANGING… 

Every league at our level has a league development grant and that is in the low tens of thousands. Compare that when you go into the Football League and the pot is in excess of £600,000. As you go down the system, the gap in funding becomes substantial.

Steps 3 & 4 cover some big towns that don’t have Football League clubs. Without them we might never have seen the likes of Jamie Vardy, Stuart Pearce and Les Ferdinand. The professional  game can’t thrive in isolation.

There’s no point in bleating about it, and you don’t just get funding; you have to present your case. But sometimes you do feel as though we (Step 3-4) are the forgotten part of football.

We’re not part of the county set-up, which is to a degree playing for the love of the game; neither are we leagues that are well-resourced from a sponsorship perspective, well-covered from a broadcast perspective. But the perspective is they’re ‘clubs’, they’re bound to have money. If I took 200 clubs there would probably be 190 of those that would live week-by-week.

 

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALL IS BRINGING IN MORE VOLUNTEERS

If I lined up all 68 of my chairman in the Northern Premier League and gave them a choice of either £10k in cash or 20 new volunteers, very few would actually take the cash because it’s the volunteers that get you the money. It’s the volunteers that make the community programme work. It’s about engaging the local community because life has changed; the footballing audience has changed.

To make all of that happen you are absolutely reliant on people and that’s why I passionately believe a coordinated volunteering initiative is required.

I do believe there are people out there who would like to get involved in their Non-League football club at both ends of the age bracket.

I would like to see Non-League football leading a national volunteering initiative to bring much-needed fresh blood into our level of the game.

 

WE MUST DO MORE TO SUPPORT PLAYERS AGAINST MENTAL ISSUES…

We have terrible tragedies on a semi-regular basis and we’ve got a responsibility to these lads. They’re playing on behalf of our clubs, and while we can’t run their lives for them, if there are additional pressures and stresses they are suffering as a result of what they’re doing for us, we’ve got a duty of care here and it’s something I feel strongly about.

 

NEXT SEASON’S RESTRUCTURE IN STEP 3-4 WILL NOT BE PERFECT, BUT IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO HELP PROGRESSION… 

We need to reduce the financial, mental and physical pressure on players and clubs, but it’s also about saying to clubs who will be coming up from Step 5: “You can’t stick your heads in the sand; you need to know what life at the higher level is like.”

That, for example, is why we at the NPL are offering to meet with clubs at Step 5 to say: “Look, we’re now in December, you may need some information about what life is like at the higher level. There’s no manual that tells you what your travelling costs will be like. How many fans do the away teams tend to bring? How many programmes do you sell? Clubs need to know what is in front of them as they look to progress.

 

THE STRUCTURE WILL GIVE US MORE LOCAL DERBIES… 

This puts the pennies into the till. We absolutely want that and we want to reduce the pressure on fans and players’ pockets. The whole issue of creating this issue in the midlands is correct. The midlands is a massive hotbed of football and personally I do believe that it deserves its own league.

 

THE RECENT RAINBOW LACE CAMPAIGN WAS FANTASTIC, BUT IT DISPLAYED THE BEST AND WORST OF FOOTBALL. FANTASTIC IDEA, BUT EXECUTED POORLY…

The Premier League and the EFL headed it up, but why wasn’t the Non-League football community involved more?

If you think of the number of clubs in the National League system, 1,500, there are 350,000 people that play football who are connected.  Particularly in the area of homophobia then that is something our clubs should do and can be encouraged to do, but we just need to find the right mechanic.

Whether the professional game has simply forgotten us then we just have to say ‘ok, we totally support the objectives, but we’ll find our own way to do it.

We picture Non-League football as one happy family… but is it? Saturday afternoons should be fun for everyone. We need to be seen, and I do believe that we can give some leadership to higher up the game and say this is actually something we really believe in.

In the NPL, Cleethorpes’ Liam Davis is the only player in English senior football to come out. Liam has fronted the club’s  equal game campaign and UEFA have publicly thanked both the club and the league for our great support in publicising the initiative.

In an uncertain, and often unhappy world, this kind of recognition makes it all worthwhile.

 

*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday

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