Opinion: Non League Day is a chance to reignite your love of the beautiful game

Real Bedford celebrating a goal at McMullen Park Image: Real Bedford

This Saturday (23 March) is Non-League Day, a chance for football fans to give supporting non-league football a go while the best players in the world embark on another international break.

“Keep going Joey, you’ve got it mate”, I’m shouting from the sidelines as Real Bedford’s top scorer, Joey Evans is enduring a tough time in boggy conditions at McMullen Park in the South Midlands Premier Division after one of the wettest Februarys on record.

He gives me a quick nod, acknowledging the support.

I’m reporting on another Tuesday night football fixture for Bedford Independent, the only local news desk consistently reporting on local sport – a tagline I’m not shy in using frequently!

A stone’s throw away, another one of our budding young journalists is one of 400 local fans watching Bedford Town who are in a title battle of their own in the division above Real.

When it comes to being a local sports journalist, the non-league game is as good as it gets for football in Bedford. As one of the biggest towns in the UK without a football league side, we appreciate the non-league arena more than most.

Just up the road, superstar striker Erling Haaland is on his way to bagging five goals in an FA Cup tie for Man City at Kenilworth Road in Luton as Pep Guardiola’s side – worth almost £1billion – coast into the quarter-finals.

Where’s the fun in that?!

Cost of living? Or something else?

Experiencing the planet’s best does of course hold appeal, but the world of non-league football is becoming increasingly popular and while the cost-of-living crisis is an obvious factor, it is not the only one.

Massive ticket prices, extortionate rates for a drink and train and fuel prices are all enough to put off the average Premier League fan, where a matchday can soar into the hundreds before you’ve even taken your seat.

But I think the love of the non-league game goes deeper than that.

“It was the right decision, Mo”, I say as Real Bedford’s winger complains to the referee about being caught offside five yards away from us watching on.

A general look of acceptance spreads across his face as he tracks back to defend.

Mo Ahmed has been a key player for Real this season Image: Real Bedford FC

It is this interaction that you don’t get anywhere else. Shout and scream all you like at Anfield, another (more famous) Mo won’t be hearing you any time soon.

Non-league football fans get the opportunity to be up close and personal with the players they’re supporting and it is this connection that cannot be found anywhere in the monstrous world of professional football.

Real Bedford in particular is big on involving its fanbase and and has invested big time in making the matchday experience more enjoyable and fan-focused.

Bedford Town hold frequent fan forums where the fans can question the bosses over a pint and its standing areas also allow for some unique interaction with the players, whether they’re home or opposition.

Image: Adrian Brown/Bedford Town FC

It all boils down to connection.

While the Premier League succumbs to foreign ownership and worldwide power bases, (or grows, depending on who you happen to support), fans at home have lost that connection.

In an adage stolen from the workplace of international companies, fans become a number; a commodity to boost merch sales and stock value, all while sitting on an overpriced seat, miles away from the action.

Even celebrating a goal has become a dangerous business in the top flight as power-hungry VAR officials take over from the comfort of their swish studios and multiple TV screens.

Fans are growing fed up of this sanitised, clinical world. Gone are the days when passion and fire were front and centre over carefully stereographed offside lines and having to wait to celebrate your team’s goals properly.

Fans want something more.

The community spirit

There’s also the fact that fans can get involved in the running of the club.

Andy Kirby of Kempston Rovers was one of these men. The former Chairman was also involved in huge developments to the bar, the main stand and the 4G pitch at Hillgrounds amongst a host of other well-received contributions, and will be sorely missed by all after he passed away in September 2023.

While I’m sure Premier League clubs have their volunteers, there’s always an air of, “it’s all about the money”.

In recent years, the likes of Newcastle, Paris St Germain and others have been taken over by Middle Eastern oil money, all of which adds to the feeling that top-flight football isn’t ours anymore. It’s a business, and we fans have no business being involved.

Image: Bedford Town / Facebook

So fans are beginning to look closer to home.

Attendances from Step 2 downwards, towards Step 5 – the level I’m watching on Tuesday night – are on the rise and while the football on show isn’t of Ballon D’or quality, you are at least able to see it up close and not from the heavens of the North Stand at Old Trafford.

And let’s not forget the magic of the FA Cup.

While Coventry City of the English second tier have provided a great story, for me, there’s nothing better than the early rounds of the world’s oldest knockout cup competition.

As a local journalist, I long for the day that one of our Borough’s sides can embark on a magical run to the First Round proper once again, where the potential to earn a lucrative tie against Football League opposition becomes a reality.

From late August onwards, there’s a dynamic that is not seen in the higher echelons of the game as hundreds of sides vie for that magic matchday.

Indeed, one of the first-ever Bedford Town matchdays I went to was the 0-0 draw with Peterborough in November 2001 and I remember the huge cheers when the Eagles found out they were going back to the Posh for a replay.

Yes, you often see behaviours stolen from those seen on Sky Sports on a weekly basis; the surrounding of referees, the feigning of injury and the backchat but if you’re a football fan, I’m afraid all of these are here to stay. I’ll need a separate article to digest all of that.

Give it a try

Fed up of VAR? Perhaps you’re annoyed your rival team has been injected with billions of Saudi dollars, (I’m looking at you Sunderland fans), or perhaps you too have been priced out of the Premier League arena.

Give your local non-league side a go.

Not many football club Chairmen will be on the turnstiles, but Peter McCormack – the larger-than-life, Bitcoin protagonist hoping to lead a non-league football finance revolution – is one of those as I shake his hand at the entrance to McMullen Park, along with a score or two of other fans hoping the rain will stay away for just 90 minutes.

Real Bedford go on to battle to a 2-1 victory against play-off-chasing Harpenden Town, adding another three points to their tasty title challenge against Milton Keynes Irish.

The Southern League awaits if they can achieve back-to-back titles, and while there may be an intriguing Premier League title chase on, make sure you look closer to home as well.

There may be one, hopefully two league titles on your doorstep, as well as a potential Great Escape from Kempston Rovers, and you’ll definitely be able to be a big part of the celebrations.

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