I know writing a blog is nothing new, and writing a blog about football is nothing new, and writing a blog about non league football is definitely nothing new. I’m not trying to be football hipster here, far from it, but I would like to document my adventures around the Ridings of Yorkshire watching football that a lot of people don’t even know exists, whilst nursing a broken hip – at 32 years old!
Even the football brainiacs that know it exists but have never been are really missing out. My experience of non league football is still very limited but I hope that changes over the next few years. It may be a well trotted out cliche but the game that I know and love is dying. For me it is dying a slow painful death, but somehow English football is bigger, better and richer than ever. Attendances at games are as high as ever (except in the ill thought out ‘EPL Trophy’ but let’s not start on that monstrosity) and subscriptions for football on the tele continue to rise. People (I’ll not call them mugs because it’s each to their own) are paying stupidly high prices for the privilege of watching Premier League football. A quick Google finds the BBC’s price of football 2015 results, up to ninety-three quid to watch Arsenal – Boring, Boring Arsenal! To buy a ticket to watch West Ham vs Stoke City at the London Stadium you have to first buy a membership for £40!
Luckily I don’t support a Premier League team. No, for my sins I support the ‘Fallen Giants’ the team that all fans of all clubs love to hate. I’ve been lucky really, I have seen my team win the league, Champions of England. A new generation of fans are led to believe that football started in 1992, the birth of the Premier League (or for the more cynical among us, the death of Football) my team didn’t win the Premier League, in fact defended their title abysmally. I’ve seen my team mix it with the best, Barcelona, Real Madrid and AC Milan (thank you Dida). Then I’ve seen some of the most embarrassing, inept, insipid games in the history of the sport. Less than a decade after a magnificent 4-1 victory away at Anderlecht I saw my team embarrassed in front of the nation in the 1st Round of the FA Cup as the part timers of Histon recorded the greatest result in their history. Not long after that horror show, my team became the giant killers, beating the Champions of England in their own back yard thanks to a beautiful ball from a home grown midfielder followed by a poor first touch and great finish by a player who scored 54 goals in 84 league appearances for non league Wealdstone. Great, great times.
Another goal of mine is to ‘do the 92’ a challenge that I have loved doing. I’m currently on 81 thanks to West Ham’s move and York’s poor 15/16 campaign. I have been lucky that my team has allowed me to visit grounds that in 2000 I would never have dreamed of going to. Hereford, Exeter and Cheltenham (all resulting in defeats for my team). Meeting interesting people who couldn’t believe who their team was facing, and ultimately beating. Great times.
But the last few years I feel like I have supported a faceless business. Led by unscrupulous businessmen, that treat the fans as customers (dissidents, despots and morons when they feel slightly more affectionate). The players just don’t stir the emotions and there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the club and it’s lifeblood. I first started watching Leeds in 1991 and had a season ticket until 2013. Going to Elland Road was becoming a chore.
I took my 5 year old daughter to watch Frickley Athletic vs Hyde United on 2nd April 2016, her first competitive game of football. Not only did she love it, my Dad loved it. Westfield Lane is about 500 yards from where my Grandma and Grandad lived. My Dad and Grandad and my Uncle Geoff used to take me as a lad and now I had taken my little girl with her Grandad. Frickley won 2-0, it was great. I went a couple of days later with my good mate Shane (he’s a Doncaster Rovers fan but more importantly a lover of the beautiful game, I’m not sure how that works when you support Donny!). Darlington 1883 were the visitors, running away with the Evo-Stick Premier league. They brought about 700 fans, the floodlights were on, it was electric. Darlington missed a penalty and then scored the inevitable opener. But back came Frickley, totally against the run of play equalising. Then came one of the greatest goals I have ever witnessed. Tyler Williams, the quick winger hit a thunderbolt to give Frickley the lead. I was convincing myself and Shane that we (WE!) couldn’t hold on to the lead, but we did, in fact we scored another. 3-1 brilliant.
But that wasn’t the best thing about the night. After the game we went into the clubhouse for a beer. An elderly gentleman came and sat with us and showed us a programme from the 80’s when Frickley played Darlington in the cup I think. We had a chat and you could feel his elation and enthusiasm for this team from a mining village in West Yorkshire. But that wasn’t the best thing about the night. In strolled the Frickley management team, they buy a couple of pints of John Smiths and sit on the table opposite with a few fans. In strolls the Referee, buys a pint (I think, I want him to have a pint in my mind but it might’ve been a soft drink) he tells us how that was a fantastic showcase for this level of football, how in the dying embers of the game the players were still end to end and how he was knackered and grateful for the full time whistle. In come the Frickley players, eating chips. This was so far away from the corporate feel of a Premier League or Championship game where the players walk past their adoring fans in huge headphones. I sat there and just thought, brilliant.
I went to a couple more games at the end of the season, all victories for Frickley. I truly believe that if the season had a few more games at the end Frickley would’ve snatched a playoff spot. As it was, they fell short. True to the fickle world of non league football there was a big turnaround in the playing staff and many of the players that had led the surge at the end of the season moved on. But we kept our Pole in the goal, the brilliant Sebastian Małkowski who won his one and only international cap against Lithuania in 2011. My Brother-in-Law and fellow non league lover Ken keeps saying Seb should wear the cap all the time, every game he plays, I would!
So on to this season, I was all set to try and complete the 92 and deliberating over returning to Elland Road with Garry Monk taking charge when my year was turned upside down.
It was my 32nd birthday on 28th July. I went to the local country park with the missus, two daughters, mum and step dad. We had a lovely breakfast and were ready to go home when I had the brainwave to let Grace (my 5 year old) go on her scooter down the massive hill. She went, I sprinted alongside her, we lost balance, I saved her fall but smashed onto the concrete path at speed and broke my hip. A proper geriatric injury. A few hours later I was in theatre at Doncaster Royal Infirmary having a Dynamic Hip Screw bolted to my right femur.
Eight or so weeks later and still in recovery the old man and brother in law took me to Westfield Lane again, there was no beer as I was still taking a well known, numbing painkiller. Frickley vs Marine, the most played EvoStick league fixture. Blues won 2-0 and we loved it. Next came Barwell a fantastic game that ended 2-3. The referee had probably the worst performance I have ever seen and ultimately handed Barwell the game on a plate, despite a late penalty miss for the Blues which would’ve given a very well deserved point.
The 15th October brought league leaders Buxton to Westfield Lane, the Blues sitting one place off the bottom of the league. After a few heavy away defeats I wasn’t expecting a lot but was looking forward to seeing Budtz, Ravenhill and Ryan all ex Doncaster players gracing the Lane. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Frickley scored after a few minutes, the recently acquired Shiraz Khan finding the back of the net with a cute effort. Khan doubled the lead a few minutes later before Buxton reduced the arrears on 15 minutes. Tyler Williams (remember him) scored another screamer to make it 3-1 much to the disbelief of the crowd. Then the good old ref got involved and reduced the blues to 10 men. Unfazed, Frickley kept at it and when a Buxton defender ridiculously put hand to ball in the area the Frickley Manager Lee Morris scored his 87th goal for the club from the spot. Half Time. Wow, all this in 45 minutes, non league football is amazing. Still, I said to my Dad that I didn’t think Frickley would hold out and it proved correct. Despite the backs-to-the-wall defending and monumental effort from the ten men of Frickley, two very late goals made it 4-4 and it could’ve been worse with Buxton missing a gilt-edged chance even later. Cue some shouting at the referee and between fans as we shuffled out of the stadium, but what a game, and what an advert for non league football.
So that’s where we are, I went to see the consultant 12 weeks after the accident to find out that my femur has AVN (Avascular Necrosis) where the head of the femur is dying off due to the blood supply. I have been referred to the Regional Specialist so in the best hands, but still off work (despite being desperate to return) and needing to avoid really crowded places.
Now how can I get my football fix while still avoiding crowded places? Watching non league football! Let’s do this!