As has become regular over the last few years, the first international break of the season has been designated an annual Non League Day to promote the non league game to fans who would otherwise be following Premiership and Championship teams, with a number of clubs offering discounts to fans to try and boost gates in these difficult times for the semi professional and amateur sides. I managed to get a few words with founder James Doe to find out more.
This is the 4th Non League Day, how has it grown over the years?
It started out purely as a social media experiment among friends on Facebook but it quickly went viral and pulled in lots of other interested parties. We launched on Twitter and then rushed through a website just in time for the first event which took place just six weeks after I originally conceived the idea.
The Non-League Paper estimated that total attendance around the country went up by 12% on the same weekend the previous year so it was quite a success. In the intervening years, the amount of interest in the media seems to get bigger and bigger and more clubs have actively put on events or offered discounted admission.
This year the biggest change has been the number of high profile people from within the game who have openly backed us with the likes of Martin Tyler, Jamie Carragher, Graham Taylor and Garth Crooks being just four of those who have shown their support.
We have also developed a great relationship with anti-discrimination charity ‘Kick It Out’ who this year will be holding special events at Guiseley and Hampton & Richmond Borough as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations. A number of businesses have also come forward to offer prizes to clubs as incentives to get more people in and there is even talk that we might get a desperately needed sponsor for next year which could take things to another level.
It must take some organising? How long does it take to get everyone together and involved?
You’re right, it’s a massive undertaking! We tend to take time off to recover from the previous campaign until about January. From then we start to put feelers out to see who’s up for another go in the year ahead. We then aim to have a brainstorm in February or March for whoever’s interested and then it goes quiet again. Everything remains on hold until around late May/early June when the FA announces the dates for rounds in the following season’s FA Cup. We do this so we know when to schedule NLD as clubs don’t like the two to clash. When we have that we can announce the date, have another planning meeting and really get things going. Momentum grows gradually over the summer especially once the fixtures come out. Press releases are sent out all the time, the website has to be developed and filled with content and we have to perform all other kinds of related publicity activities as the day gets closer.
The final week is usually frantic as we attempt to keep information on the website as up to date as possible and we try and get as many interviews done as we can. As for numbers involved, there have usually only been two of us at the core of things, with other volunteers coming in in the last few months to help drive us over the finish line. I have a feeling some of them will become a bit more permanent this time and I’d be very grateful if that were to happen as they’ve done such a great job. Once again, I’d like to stress that NLD has no budget and everything is achieved through sheer hard work and calling in favours.
I have seen pictures of Premier League players endorsing it, how have the higher divisions taken to it, do you get much support?
Yes we do. As time has gone on, more and more clubs and individuals from the higher divisions have given us their support. The first year a few Championship clubs got behind us and the second year too. Last year suddenly saw the Premier League itself and a number of its top clubs start getting involved with news stories on their websites, articles in their programmes and messages on their social media channels.
Probably the most eye-catching and tangible gesture was made by Arsenal who gave Boreham Wood the use of their luxury team coach to take them to their game at Salisbury. It’s something they’re repeating this year too for their longer trip to Weston-Super-Mare. Today alone we’ve received tweets of support from Cardiff City and Manchester City. It’s also been notable how much support we’ve received from League One and Two clubs given that most of them are in action themselves on Non League Day and could well lose the odd potential supporter to a non-league game instead and we really thank them for it.
What sort of increase in gates have you seen, do many fans stick around afterwards?
As mentioned earlier, the Non League Paper estimated that total attendance around the country in year one went up by 12% for games in Steps 1-4. Getting figures for the divisions below that is often tricky so there’s no solid data. We have, however, received enough positive feedback from clubs and fans alike that we come back each year to do it again. Personally I went to watch Wealdstone play Thurrock in a Ryman League Premier Division game last year. The Stones’ normal sort of crowd then was around 400. For this they received over 700, a figure made even more impressive by the fact the visitors were bottom of the league at the time and brought very few fans of their own.
There were numerous other similar stories. I think AFC Fylde even recorded their highest crowd of all time. The second part of your question is something I can’t answer definitively either but I have heard anecdotally of some fans who have completely switched to non-league football as a result or at least go fairly regularly. One thing that has happened at several clubs is special NLD offers, like half price for Premier League season-ticket holders, being implemented all year round because it has worked so well on the day.
As it keeps growing, where do you see the idea in the future?
At the present time there are still millions of people who don’t know NLD exists both within and outside the non-league game so while that’s the case we still have plenty of work to do. I’d love to see NLD really establish itself as a regular part of the annual sporting calendar that everyone knows about and hopefully looks forward to.
The dream would be to have it on a day when there was no Football League action at all so we could truly have a special time all to ourselves. Full FA recognition is another thing we’d love to get and cracking this, to be honest, has been far harder than winning over the Premier League and its clubs. To be fair they do usually run a story about us on their website shortly before the day but we think that we could achieve so much more if we could work more closely with them. The final ambition I have for NLD would be to make it a pan-European event with Uefa’s backing. We have seen some fledgling spin-off events already in places like the Netherlands and Poland and I believe there’s room for a lot more, with Germany being a place I believe it could really take off.
The key to all this though is major football organisations sanctioning it and internationals continuing to be played on Friday nights – if they move back to Saturdays things could get a little awkward.
With the issues concerning Kettering and Thurrock this year, and many other clubs recently, what else can be done to help ensure the future health of non league clubs in the UK?
This is a massive question and one I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer. Clearly to get people through the gates and fostering thriving clubs is the main priority and I hope by setting up NLD I’ve done my little bit to help.
And finally which game are you attending this year?
I’m off to watch Harrow Borough v Dulwich Hamlet in the Ryman League Premier Division. Harrow are the team that got me into non-league football after moving to the area as a teenager. I followed them home and away for about five years and enjoyed some of the best football-watching times of my life until I moved away. They’re offering various discounts on the day which I hope many people will take them up on and a great time will be had by all.
To find out your nearest game, visit www.nonleagueday.co.uk for more details and a very useful match finder to plan your visit.