‘Kick it Out’ taken to far

Last weekend saw the annual ‘Kick it Out’ campaign come to Non-league football, where every team in the League does there bit to promote anti-racism in football. This is a fantastic and important initiative, which rightly needs to be spread from the very top right down to the grass-roots. However, one team in the League took the slogan ‘kick it out’ a little bit to literally. The incident in question occurred during a match in the Ryman Premier League between Wingate and Finchley and Thurrock. The game unfortunately had to be abandoned after 85 minutes, with Thurrock winning 1-0, as Wingate had had 5 players sent off (yes, you read it right FIVE players!)

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During my time following football, which is all 22 years of my life, I can honestly say I have never ever heard of anything as ridiculous as that. It not only reflects badly upon the players involved and the club, but also upon the whole of the Non-league game. Very rarely does the Ryman League receive National coverage, so to be reading about this incident on the BBC Sport website and listening to it on TalkSport is very damaging and ultimately frustrating. It automatically paints a picture to those who do not know a lot about this level of football that it is rough and violent, which as I am sure you have read before, in my opinion is completely untrue.

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Having coincidently played against Thurrock last night, I began chatting with one of the Thurrock fans who painted an even darker picture of the situation. He informed me that the final two Wingate players deliberately got themselves sent off, in the hope that the game would be abandoned with Wingate loosing, so the match would have to be replayed. Luckily, on appeal, Thurrock has been awarded the three points which is the least that they deserve.

Much like the players in the Premier League, players still have a duty to act in the correct way as they are still representing their club and fans. Of course if Wayne Rooney acts out of line it is more disastrous and will receive more negative press than if a semi-professional player does, but the same principles do apply. We, as players, are still representing the Non-league game and have a duty to perform in the correct fashion. An incident such as the one seen at Wingate last week is very harmful to our League, and undoes much of the good work seen every single week.

Fortunately such incidents are very rare and few and far between. Most of the time the football is hard but fair, and the players have a mutual respect for one another. Of course bad news is more exciting to the casual reader, but it would be nice if one day the positives apparent at Non-league level  every week were given National press, rather than waiting for the occasional bad news story.

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An unforgettable experience

I have got some fantastic memories as a result of my time playing football, ranging from playing Sunday League as a youngster, my time at Watford and a brilliant three years at Wealdstone, but on Monday night my football career reached a new high.

As a young football fanatic growing up, it was always my dream to represent my country. To pull on the sacred white shirt with the three lions on, to walk out onto the pitch with thousands cheering my name and bellow out the National Anthem in front of a packed stadium. Well last night, this dream became a reality…. To an extent! The proud event in question was of course my English Universities debut against Wales Universities at Barri Town in Wales. I did pull on the shirt with the three lions on it to represent my country, I did bellow out the National Anthem, the only thing missing was the packed stadium! Despite this, it was still an extremely proud moment for me and something that I will remember and treasure for a very long time.

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The three lions I had been dreaming of playing for since I can remember.

What also made it such a special experience was the company I was with. Much like me, the rest of the boys also combine their studies with playing football at semi-professional level so much of the Non-league comradely was evident. Despite playing against a couple of the lads before so recognising one or two faces, it was still extremely daunting on arrival at the team hotel in Bristol. However, team spirit is what makes any good team great and efforts to bring us together were made straight away. On arrival, the management announced to us all that we each had to stand up in front of everyone and sing a song of our choice, which as you can imagine was met with massive sighs and groans from all the boys. I have never been on X-factor, but I imagine how I felt as I walked to the front of the room I something how contestants would feel as they stood in front of Simon Cowell. The less said about my rendition of let me love you by Mario the better, but the ultimate goal had been achieved as a group of strangers had bonded and become a team over a mutual laugh at everyone’s awful voices!

From this moment on you would have never have guessed that we were a team formed just that day as the banter between everyone flowed effortlessly. I am certain that much of this was simply down to the fact that everyone was just so happy to be there. The hotel was amazing, our kit was prepared for us and the food was great. Perhaps the highlight of the week was the team Harlem Shake video we made one evening which can be seen at the bottom of the page. Do excuse the terrible dancing on show, but the video indicates the team spirit generated in uch a short space of time as a result of our Non-league background. Ultimately a group of semi-professional lads were experiencing a professional’s life style, and loving every second!

Living like Pro's! Our lovely new England kit washed and prepared for us.

Living like Pro’s! Our lovely new England kit washed and prepared for us.

Despite the laughter, ultimately we were there to represent England and win a game of football for our country and this was continuously stressed to us. We were all aware that not many people can say they have played for England at any level so were desperate not to let ourselves down. On our plush coach on the way to the ground (slightly different to the one we have at Wealdstone!) there was a deathly silence between us all for the first time as everybody began to focus on the upcoming game. The warm-up came and went, the pre-match talk came and went and before I knew it I was standing in a line bellowing out ‘God save our Queen with a group of lad I had come to love. I couldn’t help but think of the many  times as a youngster I had stood on my bed singing the same anthem dreaming of playing for England and now it was happening!

Me with one of the Lads looking suitably happy with our nights work!

Me with one of the Lads looking suitably happy with our nights work!

The game itself couldn’t have gone much better. We scored an early goal and imply didn’t look back eventually winning 4-0. The scenes at the end were a mixture of relief and joy as a combination of skill, hard work and also a fair bit of team spirit had meant that our first experience representing England had been a jolly successful one!

As we said our good buy’s to each other in the bar after the game, the joke was made that we should form a new Non-league side! Numbers were exchanged, Twitter accounts followed and Facebook profiles added as we all vowed to stay in touch. Unlike the professionals who moan about playing for England as they are tired or carrying  a slight knock, for us young lads it had been an honour of a lifetime and an experience that we will share between us forever. It is this that is the key difference. Unlike the professionals we didn’t need or expect the fancy hotel or the brand new kit, it was simply the badge on the shirt that mattered and I believe this can be related to playing for a Non-League team. We don’t play for any other reason than the love of the game and for the enjoyment.

All the team after our 4-0 win. It really had been an honour and  fantastic experience.

All the team after our 4-0 win. It really had been an honour and fantastic experience.

So if by any chance you are reading this Mr Hodgson and want a group of young, committed, passionate, and talented players who will give there absolute all for their Country, then be sure to give us a call!

Here is our Harlem Shake video, an indication of just how much we were all enjoying ourselves:

A proper Non-League day out

Saturday epitomised everything that I love about Non-League Football. The team spirit, the banter, the football and the aftermath. Everything about it was absolutely fantastic.

Of course what I am referring to is Saturday’s top of the table clash, away at top of the League Whitehawk. By far the biggest game of the season, whoever won this battle would take a massive step towards securing automatic promotion to the Conference South. The day started early with the team coach departing Grosvenor Vale, the home of Wealdstone, at 10.30am. Now you know it’s a big game when the coach is leaving early to stop for a pre-match meal en route. After all, that’s the sort of thing that only happens to those highly pampered professionals! And naturally, not all was as it seemed. An hour into the trip Gordon called down the coach to the lads that we would be stopping in five minutes for our pre-match meal. So five minutes later, with every one suitably looking forward to a nice healthy plate of scrambled eggs on toast, we pulled into a service station equipped only with a Little Chef. I for one didn’t even know Little Chef still existed. But it soon dawned on us that in true Non-League style, our pre-match meal would actually be a fry up in a service station just off the M23! Not quite the posh hotel we had been expecting. So 30 minutes later, with the boys nicely stuffed with bacon, egg and sausage we set of on the final leg of our day out to Whitehawk.

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The Wealdstone coach about to leave for Whitehawk.

The lads on the coach were also particularly buoyant as not only were we on the way to a massive game, but also to one of the most anticipated night of the year: a team night out! With Whitehawk based in Brighton it was too good an opportunity to miss. The hotels were booked and tables ordered in nightclubs, Wealdstone were hitting Brighton!

Brooksy enjoys a pre-match nap in preparation for the game. Or perhaps the oncoming night out?

Brooksy enjoys a pre-match nap in preparation for the game. Or perhaps the oncoming night out?

Much has been made of Whitehawk, and in particular its ground so I for one was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. And quite simply it is a shambles. An absolute embarrassment to the League, and I think I am being kind! I won’t dwell on the subject for too long, but you may remember one of my previous posts talking about rich owners taking over clubs with a short term project to get them promoted? Well if you ever want to see that scenario in action, get yourself along to Whitehawk as it is summed up perfectly in a lovely little nutshell. Two temporary stands have been erected at each end of the ground, which wouldn’t look out of place in a war zone, in the hope they pass League regulations if they are promoted. But if I am honest there is more chance of the moon falling out of the sky than this happening. While the chairman’s short term plans are currently working with the team sitting top of the League, I would put a lot of money (that I don’t have) on them being in administration within 10 years.

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Whitehawks embarrassing effort at building a new stand.

Now onto the game. I won’t talk about it in too much detail (you will see why later) but what I will say is that it was a proper Non-league game. Good quality, committed and high tempo football from both sides, as each looked to take a stranglehold on the promotion race. Whitehawk took the lead through a scrappy goal in the first half, before our very own Frank Lampard scored a fantastic second half equaliser: take a bow Mr Alex Dyer. After this, both teams had chances but neither could strike the decisive blow and the game finished 1-1. In the changing room after the game there was a mixture of emotions. On one hand satisfaction at taking a point away from the home of the League leaders, but also disappointment at not being able to steal all three points. One thing is for sure though, and that is that the League is still very much up for grabs promising an electric final 10 games!

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Lee Chappell lets the referee know exactly what he thinks of his decision to book him.

However, this is where Non-League Football comes into its own as the fun is not over once the final whistle blows. Rather than board the coach equipped with pasta and a protein shake, the boys all headed straight to the bar to grab the best recovery available to any sportsman, an ice cold pint! With everyone aware of the oncoming night out for the team, the club even pooled together and brought all the lads a drink. Only in Non-League! A special mention must also be made to our fans that travelled down to Whitehawk to support us. a staggering 250 made the trip down to the coast which is an absolutely sensational effort. Most clubs at this level struggle to get that at home games let alone long away trips. I can honestly say that your support is appreciated massively by all the boys and it really does help!

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Wealdstone fans in full voice:

So after an early rise, a breakfast at Little Chef, a shambolic ground, an excelent game of football, a good result, a fair share of laughs and a couple of pints, the day was done and the night had begun! A fantastic outing for all involved and a proper day of Non-league football, the sort of day that you just can not enjoy as a professional.

I will not talk in any detail about the night out, but what I will say is that it was really, really fun!

Below is a selection of video interviews filmed by myself before and after the Whitehawk game, talking about the match in far more detail. Also please have a look at my Flickr page http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonathannorth/ for some more behind the scenes snaps. I hope you enjoy them!

Before the game

Chris and Sean talk about the upcoming game…. and the night out. A fine example of what makes Non-League such a special place:

Brooksy decides he doesn’t want to be interviewed at the final second so Chaps discusses his new yellow boots and predict some bold score lines:

The game

Here are the highlights of Saturdays game, including Alex Dyer’s spectacular equaliser:

After the game

Gordon Bartlett reveals his disappointment not to win all three points, but insists automatic promotion is still well within grasp:

Scott McCubbin pays a special tribute to the Wealdstone faithful:

Rikki Banks doesn’t really know what to say about the game:

There is talent around…

With a massive game approaching on Saturday, there was unsurprisingly a big turn out from all the boys at this evenings training session, as everybody looked to gain a starting spot for the weekend. Despite the rain falling down, the whole squad managed to get down to the RAF camp in Ruislip for our weekly Thursday evening training session/kick about. Even our very own Mario Balotelli managed to make the 5 minutes journey from his house: the one and only Kurtney Brooks!

Now a little word about my good friend Kurtney. I have known ‘Brooksy’ as he is known by everybody at football, for nearly six years beginning with my time spent with him at Watford. A tough tackling central midfielder, Brooksy is undoubtedly the worst semi-professional footballer I have ever had the fortune of meeting… and to be known as a bad semi-professional footballer that really is saying something. He is constantly late, never trains, never washes his boots, eats McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a terrible left foot (as his very own song goes, sung to the tune of Kumbaya: No left foot my lord no left foot, no left foot my lord no left foot, no left foot my lord no left foot, oh my Brooksy no left foot!) I am sorry mate but it is true. But, and belive it or not there is a but, he is an exceptional footballer. And it is this sort of quality that is evident at Non-League level that I want to focus on.

Our very own Kurtney Brookes... smiling as usual!

Our very own Kurtney Brookes… smiling as usual!

Non-league football is often frowned upon by those ignorant enough not to give it a chance. It is stereotyped as a place where big bruiser’s flourish and where the ball spends more time in the air than it does on the grass. But I disagree with this.  I think the amount of talent available at a lower level is staggering and simply needs exploiting. Players such as Brooksy are everywhere. People with unbelievable talent, but for whatever reasons they haven’t yet had their lucky break in the professional game. An interesting statistic to consider is that out of the 10,000 boys enrolled as full-time professionals at clubs every year, only 1% will go on to make a living out of the game! So what happens to the other 99% of talented players who didn’t quite make it? They filter down to the Non-League teams, in the desperate hope of making it back into the professional game. Just take Wealdstone for an example. As a club we are well-known for giving unwanted players a fast track back into the full-time game. Premier League footballers such as Stuart Pearce and Jermaine Beckford are just but a few to pull on the famous blue jersey, and certainly won’t be the last. I could name you dozens of players who have left fellow Ryman League teams to go on and excel at teams higher in the League, and this is evidence of the esteem this League is held in by those higher up in the game. Of course there are teams who play the occasional long ball but that is the same everywhere, for example Stoke City in the premier League. I get a neck ache every time I watch them I have to look up so often! But that is football. There is so many talented footballers around at Non-league level, that just need a chance higher up.

And a plaque in the Wealdstone club house to honour Jermaine Beckfords time at the club.

And a plaque in the Wealdstone club house to honour Jermaine Beckfords time at the club.

Another example is Luton Town. Being one of the biggest teams in the Non-League structure, they are often seen as the standard-bearer for this level. And didn’t they do all of us proud this season, reaching the last 16 of the FA Cup, beating Premier League Norwich City in the process. In doing so they became the first Non-League team to beat a team from the top flight in the Premier League era. They did this by playing good, attacking, quality football and certainly not by bullying their far superior rivals. As a system, during that epic cup run, the whole of the Non-league was completely behind Luton. By them doing as well as they did, it sent out a message to those who sneer upon this level of football. A message saying something along the lines of ‘we are Non-League AND we can play football. ’

Conference Premier side celebrate beating Premier League outfit Norwich City in this years FA Cup

Conference Premier side celebrate beating Premier League outfit Norwich City in this years FA Cup

One final bonus about snapping up a player from a lower League is that there is certainly no prima donna’s! To excel at this level you have to be willing to shower in the cold and play on muddy pitches, so any move to a club with even lukewarm showers would certainly be seized upon.

So next time you bemoan a lack of English talent, or a lack of passion get yourself down to your local Non-league team and I can almost guarantee you that you will be impressed, and potentially even witness the next player to make the giant leap into the professional game.

The importance of ‘real’ fans

You may remember me talking about the crowd  at Metropolitan Police in my last blog post, or more to the point the lack of it. The Police are one of the few teams in the Ryman Premier League, where the travelling support will often outnumber the home. This not only baffles and frustrates me, but also makes me wonder how a club like this can successfully function and it is this that I will be looking at in the following post.

From the Premier League down, the fans are the lifeblood of any club. A club without fans would be like a boat with no rudder. It would have no direction, just a floating empty vessel. The fans give a club a meaning and an identity, as well as buying the tickets which pay the wages. The Metropolitan Police, for example, average only 140 fans for a home game, the second lowest in the League. What makes this even more surprising is that the Police are not a bad team and every year are looking to challenge for promotion. This year for example, they are sitting in 8th place and 4 points from the play-off’s. Margate, who sit one place above the Police average over 200 more fans per home game. If you consider this in terms of revenue, with an average ticket costing £10.00, an extra 200 sold a game could generate an extra £2000 for the club. At this level this amount of money goes a long, long way. I guess what I am trying to get at is how do teams like the Metropolitan Police afford it, and more to the point is it healthy in the long run?

To answer this question I want to look at a couple of other examples. Firstly, Carshalton Athletic. Three years ago, Carshalton, also of the Ryman Premier League, were taken over by a local businessman with a bucket full of money he apparently wanted to waste. His dream was to establish Carshalton as a Non-League force. The catch was (there is always a catch) that he wanted sole ownership of the club, completely taking away any power from the fans. In return he promised big name signings and of course success. He certainly delivered on one front with a series of highly paid, excellent players arriving at the club. Furthermore, the new owner also made himself the manager, the coach, and the physio despite having no prior experience, simply because, well, he could! Fast forward three years and the Carshalton dream is far from a reality. With the wealthy businessman no longer at the club, they are facing administration and languishing at the foot of the Ryman table. Not only this, but the once loyal fans became so fed up with what the club had become, even they are no longer there. I could list nameless other clubs who have had similar fate: Truro City, Croydon Athletic, Kettering Town all now bust after being swooned by a new wealthy owner promising the World, but forgetting what is really important at a Non-League team, the fans!

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A typically quite evening at the home of the Metropolitan Police…

Now, I am going to blow the trumpet here a little of our own fans at Wealdstone who I believe are some of the best in Non-League. There is a popular saying in the Non-League game which is it is a game for fans who are more than just a seat number. This simplified means at this level the fans are not just people paying ridiculous prices to watch a game and then going home, like they are in the professional game. They are people who the players know and who do what they can to help the club. During my time at Wealdstone I have witnessed this first hand. The amount of times they have chipped in helping with work around the club, on Match days and also financially is staggering. Some of my best memories at the club consist of good wins on the pitch then enjoying a drink with the fans in the bar after the game. This season for example, the fans introduced a scheme called ‘pints4promotion’ where every drink brought at the club bar went directly to the playing budget to help us achieve promotion. This is a fine example of real fans helping a real club function successfully within its mean.

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In comparison, the Wealdstone fans turn up in number to support their team

It is because of this that every time I go to somewhere like the Metropolitan Police or Whitehawk who appear to be doing well on the face of it, I question how long it can last. Because there is one thing in football you simply cannot buy, and that is fans who love the club.

Any club who wants to be successful at this level need real fans and we are fortunate to have them at Wealdstone. Forget an owner promising to pay players ridiculous wages because that won’t work in the long-term. Unlike the professional game where fans are often discarded by the players and ignored by owners, at Non-League level they are just as important as the ball we play with. So forget your glitz and glamour, your big name signings and your big wages, if you want to be successful at this level what you really need is a strong fan base and players who appreciate them.

Below is an example of our fantastic fans in full voice, after we beat Cambridge United in the FA Trophy last season:

Wealdstone to good for the Police

This weekend, Saturday the 2nd of March, saw Wealdstone travel to the Metropolitan Police FC for a crucial game against another team desperately searching for promotion.  With only 12 games remaining, every game must be seen as a must win, especially when it comes to those against fellow promotion hopefuls.

A trip to Imber court, home ground of the Police, is always an interesting one. Unlike most away days where you expect to face a hostile atmosphere and receive a large amount of abuse from the home crowd, it is completely the opposite. For reasons that are beyond me, not many people choose to support the football team representing the Police force, with the travelling support normally outnumbering the home, but I will refer more to this in a separate blog post.

Preparations for the game began in typical Non-League fashion, with Manager Gordon Bartlett arriving with half the team about 30 minute late due to traffic en-route. This gave the lads already in the changing room plenty of time to discuss tactics, or more to the point a specific party they were planning on attending that night!

However, on the arrival of Gordon talk quickly turned to football and the importance of gaining three points from the match. We knew that if we stole (my first Police pun) three points from this match then we would be in an excellent position, as Whitehawk, who currently occupy top pot were playing Lowestoft Town away so could potentially drop points. Our pre-match instructions were direct and straight to the point…. ‘Go and win the bl**dy game!’

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Exclusive images of our pre-match tactics!

With the sun shining, the pitch in excellent condition and both teams desperate for a win all the attributes were there for an excellent attacking game of football. But this was not the case. Perhaps the pressure was getting to both sides as neither team stamped their authority on the game and chances were few and far between. Or perhaps the first of apperance of the Sun in almost a year had confused every body involved and affected their feet? I guess we will never know. But the first half ended goalless, and pretty much chance less.

Perhaps it was something in the half time oranges, or Gordon’s inspirational team talk but it only took 5 second half minutes for us to take the lead. Much has been said about Left-Back Lee Chappell’s performances this season, none more so than by himself, but it was he who played the crucial role in this goal. An excellent run and cross delivered by his sweet left foot found its way through to winger Tom Pett who slotted the ball home.  The goal was celebrated in the standard Wealdstone fashion, quite simply a big bundle which often results in a cracked rib or two for the goal scorer.

The rest of the game went by without much to report on with neither team creating much in the way of chances. From a journalistic point of view this was very disappointing as it doesn’t allow me to say the overused cliché: Wealdstone ‘robbed’ the police. Bad puns apart, this was a massive three points for us and with the Whitehawk game finishing 1-1, we now sit 9 points behind but with two games in hand. More importantly we travel to Whitehawk next weekend in a massive top of the table clash. Hopefully we can stop the Hawk’s from flying…

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Rikki Banks shows his delight with the win

Highlights of Saturday’ game can be seen below:

Why Non-League?

In my first blog post to you I would just like to highlight the key differences between the Professional game and the Non-league game in case you didn’t already know. The professional game in England is made up by four leagues consisting of the Premier League, the Championship, League One and League Two. In all of these Leagues the players train full-time and their sole job is to go out and win football games (simple!) In comparison, the Non-League game is made up of seven Leagues with the vast majority of the teams being part-time outfits. This means that while players may pick up a bit of money from playing football, the majority of their wage will be made up by a full-time job. This is where the difference lyes. I personally have been lucky enough to experience life as a professional footballer after spending three years full-time at Watford FC. Unfortunately the dream couldn’t quite become a reality and I am now playing semi-professionally for Wealdstone FC in the Ryman Premier Division. Because of my experience in both sides of the game, I feel as though I am in a strong position to highlight the extraordinary differences.

I have already mentioned how semi-professional footballers play for ‘the love of the game’ and nothing highlights this more than the dedication shown by all players involved. During my three years so far at Wealdstone I have witnessed some remarkable things. Mid-week away games can be a nightmare for many players with work commitments making it very hard for people to get to games on time. Because of these I have turned up at grounds to find only six players present five minutes before kick-off, our kit-man stuck in traffic so no kit available and players driving to the wrong ground as they have the wrong postcode. Despite all the difficulties, players keep coming back for more. Players will continue to travel around the M25 in rush hour in the vain hope of making a 7.45pm kick off after a long day on a building site, as football is what they love doing.

To put this into perspective, I will now try and detail to you an away game during my time playing for Watford. Firstly, any away game no matter how far away you would travel to on the luxurious team coach with televisions, leather chairs and PlayStations equipped. Furthermore, any journey further than an hour away you would travel up to the night before and stay in a hotel close to the ground. Your kit would be taken care of right down to your underwear and your boots would be waiting for you on arrival at the ground. After the game, rather than driving home and getting up for work the next day, we would all be given the day off to rest and recuperate. It was oh so an easy life!

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An example of the team-spirit evident at Wealdstone.

I hope this helps you do understand just a fraction of what a Non-League player has to go through and the massive difference to the professional game. Despite my time as a professional footballer being a fantastic experience, I can hand on heart say my time in the semi-professional game has been more enjoyable.

Despite the long trips, the cold showers and the awful pitches, the comradely between players is exceptional. There are no egos and everybody is in the same situation. While it is certainly tougher, the Non-League game is like playing football as a child again with everybody’s only desire being to go onto the football pitch to enjoy it and win a game of football.

I hope my future blog posts will bring to life my experiences, and indicate just why the Non-League game has just as much to offer as the Professional game.