You’re one amongst 30,000; part of a choir, a tribe and a culture. You’re surrounded by high quality facilities; in front of you are 22 of the best footballers in the world.
The bright young thing with the world at his feet crosses to the experienced international striker to give your team the lead. Pandemonium. 30,000 of you celebrate the ball crossing the line, one goal in one 90 minutes of football, as if you’ve all won the lottery.
It’s being a fan of a club at the highest level. It’s incredible.
And if you’ve missed that moment, Gary or Manish will guide you through replay after replay on a Saturday night.
On the other hand, you’re one amongst a few hundred, maybe a few thousand if you’re lucky. The tiny stands and empty spaces mean you’re not surrounded at all, but the tea hut serves the best cuppa you’ll ever find. In front of you are 22 footballers who don’t always make enough money from football to survive.
The postman delivers the ball through to the PE Teacher who beats the opposition’s bricklayer in goal to give your side the lead. The celebrations inside the ground are a world away from the Premier League, but you feel exactly the same as any fan of any club in any division would.
You can only dream of Manish analysing your club’s performance, but the low quality YouTube clips just about do the job.
It’s being a fan of a non-league club. It’s an alien concept to some.
In truth, it’s something of an alien concept to me. Apart from a trip to Dover Athletic, for reasons unrelated to real world football, and using the FA Trophy Final as an excuse to visit Wembley for the fifth time, I’ve found it hard to motivate myself to stand in the cold and watch sub-standard football. There’s a strong chance I’ll unfairly patronise non-league fans and non-league at some point during this article, so I’ll get my apologies in early.
But with attendances healthy, such as an average of 1,800 fans attending games at Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium in the Isthmian League, non-league clearly has something attractive about it for the spectator.
“I say the passion and I just enjoy the whole thing a lot more compared to the Premier League,” says Hayes and Yeading fan Corey Eaton, who has supported the club since its creation in 2007.
“I normally compare semi-pro to Premier League.
“It isn’t all about money compared to your Agueros; there are more Gerrards in non-league.
“It’s not exactly cheaper than the lower Football League divisions (in terms of cost of being a supporting) but you get closer to the club and you are able to communicate with the players and management easier.”
That stereotypical idea of non-league clubs being one big community is one that attracts many to the lower tiers, and makes promoted clubs miss it when they enter the Football League.
“I definitely miss the togetherness of the fans,” says Crawley fan Craig Bratt, who has seen his club rise from Conference point deductions to a top half League One side in his life as a supporter.
“The fan base has grown but ultimately our once tight knit group have drifted and are less connected with each other.
“I feel (the togetherness of the fans) is the main difference between supporting a non-league club and a Football League club.”
That all sounds quite attractive, doesn’t it? Attending a game each week with the same group of people, having close contact with your heroes and watching them perform for their love of the game, not primarily to bolster their bank balance.
So why is the Football League such an ideal for those below England’s top four tiers? Why do community based clubs want to sacrifice aspects of their ethos in favour of professionalism, a disconnection between fans and club, and relatively high paid imports?
It’s those questions that lead to Eaton viewing any possibility that his side could one day play in League Two quite sceptically.
“I wouldn’t mind playing in there of course, I see the Football League as a dream just like most of the players, but I don’t think I could handle everyone from the local town coming out in force that was not there during our current dark days ground sharing at Woking.”
But Bratt’s elation upon achieving promotion, and his thereafter enjoyment of the Football League, would suggest that once it happens and once you’re there, there’s little time for scepticism.
“The feeling I felt after gaining promotion was unreal,” he says.
“Nineteen days after the death of our beloved owner Bruce Winfield, we achieved his 50 year dream of getting into the Football League. It was fitting, and it was what Bruce deserved.
“During the lowest times at Crawley, never could I have imagined us in the Football League.
“I was only about 10 years old when we were down to our last penny, but I still remember us being minutes from liquidation.
And watching his side in League Two, and League One, has been an unforgettable experience for Bratt.
“League Two exceeded my expectations. The away days we had were incredible on our way to achieving promotion at the first attempt.
“We took 600 to Oxford United, scored a last minute equaliser and went wild.
“In League One we’ve played teams like Portsmouth and Sheffield United. My little team shouldn’t be doing this.”
But is there really much of a difference between the lower divisions of the Football League and the more well regarded non-league divisions?
The biggest difference would probably be an individually constructed idea of status. Attending a League Two game seems a lot more high profile, and therefore worthwhile and enjoyable, than a Conference fixture.
However, with a host of formerly well regarded league clubs in non-league’s top flight and games being shown live on BT Sport, the difference in status between tier four and tier five is shrinking; like it has been year upon year for quite some time.
But for Wrexham fan Joe Prosser, whose club have suffered several heartbreaks in their attempt to return to the Football League, the two divisions aren’t as equal as some would like to make out.
“I don’t think the quality of football is much different from the bottom half of League Two to the top 5 or 6 in the Conference,” says the teenage supporter.
“However, the difference between playing Portsmouth away with a five-figure attendance and travelling to Hyde and overwhelmingly outnumbering the home support is huge.
“It’s quite disheartening, because we really deserve to be in the Football League.”
After six seasons playing in the conference, Prosser, like fans from other big fishes in a small pond, has grown frustrated by the division.
“At first I thought Wrexham would be in the conference for two seasons maximum and I thought it would be a nice adventure.
“However, it’s just terrible to be down here now.
“Even though the away days are cheaper, flat atmospheres and low attendances year after year get very depressing, whilst bankrolled Sunday league clubs winning the league and not being able to compete with them is another factor (I don’t enjoy).”
His experience hasn’t been helped by the success of another Welsh club, who were once their inferiors.
“Once upon a time we were always looking down on Swansea and things looked bleak for them, but my goodness have they changed things around, and you have to admire them.
“But it could have been us.
“Wrexham are a club with great potential and a similar sized catchment area to what Swansea have.
“I’m not saying we could become a club playing in Europe and constantly in the top half of the Premier League, but we could certainly have established ourselves in the Championship.”
Prosser’s pain has a lot to do with his club’s failure. As a fan of a former League club, he has that very strong win at all costs mentality. If they’d romped to the title inside the first few seasons of their time in non-league, maybe he’d look back on it fondly.
So what is it like supporting a former league club who enjoyed five promotions in nine years to return to the Football League?
“Of course winning made the non-league journey more enjoyable,” says AFC Wimbledon fan Joe Morger.
“And the relief of winning promotion to the Football League was huge. It was what the last 9 years had been about, reclaiming Wimbledon’s football league spot and another one of those stepping stones we needed to jump for.”
For Morger, it also meant he could finally see some consistent TV coverage of his side.
“As much as I’ll complain about the football league show, it beats having no highlights at all. You didn’t always get highlights of games, so if you couldn’t make it to one of the many obscure towns it was annoying not to catch up on.”
But it wasn’t just the winning and having the prospect of Clem visit his club that made it enjoyable, nor the factors surrounding Wimbledon’s story.
Like many others, Morger enjoyed the community spirit of non-league football.
“The best thing about being a non-league fan is knowing the club and the people.
“There’s not a Premier League club where ordinary fans will know the players, staff and those in charge on such a personal level.”
And even non-league bashing Prosser appreciates the community spirit that being in non-league football seems to bring.
Wrexham fans raised £100,000 in a few hours to keep the club alive in 2011, something he rather brilliantly sums up as an ‘outstanding effort’.
So it would seem getting enjoyment from supporting a non-league club has a lot to do with off the field events.
And maybe that’s what it’s all about.
For non-league fans, it’s not entirely about turning up to watch some part timers you’ve never heard of kick a ball around about on a cabbage patch; it’s about the social experiences that connect with you other fans and those inside the club itself.
You could certainly argue it’s the other way around in the top tiers of English football. Whilst I love going to away games, especially ones in which Charlton take 300 fans up north, the day is completely ruined if we don’t get the result.
But, from the way in which each fan describes on the pitch non-league moments, and they’re not all FA Cup runs, that’s certainly an overstatement.
You wouldn’t begrudge Bratt selecting Crawley’s cup run that saw them grace Old Trafford, but he opts for an emotional league success.
“My most memorable game was our 2-1 win away at Eastbourne the day after the death of Winfield.
“We celebrated his life amazingly and fittingly won.”
Despite having all of Wimbledon’s success to choose from, Moger opts for the club’s final moment in non-league football.
“For most people who have been promoted, it’s the very last moment, the moment you get out and hope you never return.
“Because there are only 2 promotion spots it really is the culmination of an incredibly hard fought season.”
Hayes and Yeading upset a few bigger clubs during their time in the Conference, and Eaton remembers one such upset fondly.
“Oxford United were top at the time, it was our first season in the Conference and were favourites to go down.
“But we ended up beating them 2-1 away, and we then did the double over them, beating them 2-1 again.”
For non-league pessimist Prosser, it’s non-league’s show piece occasion.
“It’s the Trophy Final. After all we’d been through only 18 months or so before it (with the fans saving the club), and just seeing Wrexham step onto the Wembley turf for the first time in it’s 149 year history was an incredible moment.”
The football isn’t half bad, and that’s something I can vouch for from my viewing of the FA Trophy Final and Dover Athletic.
The Trophy Final, after a nervy start, was fast paced and both Wrexham and Grimsby played attractive football.
Dover, at least in the two fixtures I’ve seen, play an excellent brand of counter attacking football, with some very talented young wingers making them a constant threat going forward.
A fantastic community ethos and enjoyable football, it’s not difficult to see why so many get sucked into the non-league bubble.
With thanks to: