ONE isn’t supposed to support the opposition; fans are meant to be partisan, bulldogs, stoic in the defence of their realm… but that time it was so different, writes Ashley Greb.
Far away in Africa, the World Cup was a mere day old – back home the papers were full of imminent success – and out on the Royal Bafokeng pitch, fittingly dressed in heroic Thunderbirds kit, Jay DeMerit stood like a rock, bellowing out The Star Spangled Banner.
Six years previously, I watched the very same native of Wisconsin trot out on Vicarage Road, for his truly remarkable debut against La Liga side, Real Zaragoza. Rather green, but equally determined, Jay already had a story worth telling; only two weeks earlier he’d been giving his all on trial for Northwood FC, in level 7 of the English pyramid. True Watford had found other great prospects in the Non League ranks but, Jay was somehow different. Educated and well grounded; his family thought him crazy coming to England to chase a dream – what parents wouldn’t – but for one so young there seemed a mature determination inside.
Not selected in the MLS draft, 23 year old Jay departed for Europe without any real footballing experience; just a passport, Danish ancestry and, a bag full of optimism. Sleeping on floors, painting houses, and eating beans and toast to survive; it was through hard graft and determination, Jay took a most unlikely route to the top.
Admirably retold in the film ‘Rise & Shine’, Jay’s fairy-tale could have so easily appeared in Roy of the Rovers. Perfectly illustrating the argument that – amongst the phoney gimmicks and fireworks – grass roots football still had a place of vital importance, Jay’s story is as poignant today as it was back then. His strength of character, both on and off the pitch, won over supporters and coaches, and totally turned my World Cup allegiance around.
Commenting on his belief in Non League football, Jay recently told me, “Non League is very important. Obviously, in relation to my own story, I wouldn’t be where I am today without non-league football” continuing, “There are a lot of players that are ‘under the radar’ and need non league football both as a platform to be seen, and also as a platform to develop. Not every player gets their chance or opportunity right away, so non-league is place to keep looking for it.”
Often overlooked by the media, these lower leagues may not be on every supporter’s horizon however, amongst their sporting idols, Jay is clearly not the only prominent player to value the full extent of the footballing pyramid. Many top class players have benefitted from it before him and, far more names will undoubtedly follow. With that in mind, the question surely is how we maintain this goldmine from which Jay had been hewn.
Coincidental or not – about the time he was completing his meteoric rise from Southall to South Africa – just a few miles from Jay’s Camden home, QPR fan James Doe was dreaming up Non League Day. With affection for Harrow Borough FC and a keen eye for the giant killers of yesteryear, James – like Jay – saw the lower leagues like an undervalued colleague. Totally essential to the workforce but not necessarily offered a drink at the work’s do.
In a bid to bring return some love to this under-appreciated member of the footballing family, James set out to organise a celebration of these leagues and their clubs.
In promoting these lower reaches of the pyramid; Non League Day has clearly gone from strength to strength. Last season the festivities gained exceptional media coverage and a high profile partnership with ‘Kick It Out’; on the day some clubs even doubled their attendances. Whilst it was intended to raise awareness and to boost attendances for teams, many clubs also combined Non League Day with their own special fund-raising events.
Taking time away from our usual perches, NLD offers us fans a chance to show appreciation for these sides; the country’s volunteer-run clubs, their fine community work and, for affording determined young men like Jay DeMerit a stage on which to develop and shine.
“There are so many kids and adults alike, which need non-league football to continue to spread the message that only football can bring. For the kids, it’s about development in their skills and other qualities such as teamwork and mental strength that they will need if they are ever going to make it as a pro.” explained Jay thoughtfully, continuing “For adults, it’s a lifestyle and a passion that they can still compete in, and enjoy the game they love. English football probably has the strongest roots in the world, and a lot of those roots start with non-league.”
Backed by many in the game, the Non League Day 2013 takes place on Saturday, September 7 and, those in the know are already drawing up shortlists of destinations. With no Premier League or Championship games that weekend and England playing on Friday night, all supporters can once again have a multitude of exceptional options with which to fill their footballing void.
Non League Day Ambassador, Martin Tyler, enthusiastically maintains that such wonderful live Non League experiences can be found round every corner. Adding weight to this, Jay concluded “If you believe in the game and what it stands for, the support of grass roots football is needed to continue to make football the game it is today.”
Whilst I’m unlikely to duet with Jay on the Star Spangled Banner, reliving that day in Rustenburg, it’s not hard now to understand why Jay DeMerit altered my allegiances. Now captain at Vancouver Whitecaps, this determined young man was, and still is, a fine role model for young people, both as a footballer and a person. As if justification for maintaining a successful Non League football, Jay’s is a story of breaking the mould; of human endeavour in a less celebrated world.
When looking for inspiring stories or role models for my children, Jay DeMerit – like Non League football and its volunteers – really does tick all the boxes.
For a chance to see the next Jay DeMerit; to participate, volunteer or even, find out more about your local football club, try Non League Day for starters.
For more on the author of this article, Ashley Greb, check out his Twitter: @putajumperon