Greg Johnson believes the FA should look to Non-League day to win back fans.
Football shouldn’t be a chore yet with every passing September, the first international break of the season feels more and more like an administrative obstacle to overcome rather than a spectacle to relish.
With just a handful of games played, it’s time to put down your clubs’ burgeoning league campaigns, tidy away the spoils of the transfer window, and get on shift. Who cares if you’ve only just got into the rhythm of the new season! No wonder people are left feeling short-changed by the fixture list and its abrupt halt to proceedings. They’re left all warmed up with nowhere to go; it’s a classic example of the old bait and switch con if ever there was one.
And it’s a situation that’s hardly likely to help the popularity of Roy Hodgson’s England, especially after their dour display against Norway in front of a half-empty Wembley.
Rather than kick their PR campaigns into overdrive to try and explain away the desertion of fans from the national team however, the FA should take notice of the positives that can come out of this unhappy quirk of the FIFA calendar.
Non-League Day, now in its fourth year, was a huge success at the weekend as many supporters looked locally for a substitute to replace their interrupted intake of club football. At Dulwich Hamlet in south London, a crowd of 2,856 flocked through the turnstiles to watch them draw 2-2 with Hampton And Richmond all the way down in the English seventh tier. It was an attendance larger than the numbers that made it down to come League Two games, and even pipped the figures for Crawley Town’s 4-0 home defeat to Rochdale in League One.
Similar successes were reported across the country as teams tried to make the most out of the lull of topflight football by engaging with their communities and offering enticing discounts and deals for ticket prices. At Dulwich, the club looked to Radiohead for inspiration, running a “Pay What You Like” scheme on the door. Days after a hollowed-out Wembley played host to echoes, Champion Hill roared.
England would do well to take inspiration from the growth of Non-League Day. It’s not just the dull football and tired tactics that are causing audiences to switch off or turn away. There’s a general sense of aloofness that permeates the national team, the FA and the bubble that surrounds the upper echelons of the game’s establishment in this country.
Sure, who wouldn’t want Hodgson to finally make good on his comparisons between Jurgen Klopp’s version of a 4-4-2 and his own? But in the absence of excellence, there should be a concerted effort to reacquaint England with its supporters, and create a feel good factor that doesn’t rely on hype and bluster to paper over the cracks of both the team and its relationship with the general public.
If attendances are a problem, lower the ticket prices. Open the doors to a new group of fans who may appreciate the opportunity to grab a seat and sing a song to produce an atmosphere rather than an inflated profit. Attempt to foster some sort of connection between those on the pitch and those in the stands, beyond the logo of the kit manufacturer that adorns their both their shirts and their replicas, respectively.
Perhaps in some ways Wembley itself is the problem. What better example is there of the authorities being out of touch with their public and the problems of the grassroots game than the 90,000-seater behemoth that replaced the iconic twin towers at great expense and delay? The £757 million spent on its construction could have done a world of good to the beleaguered youth clubs and half-dead or disappearing playing surfaces that are strangling England from its roots as the Premier League soars. And beyond the monetary cost involved, think back to the nomadic era on the road under Sven Goran-Eriksson and the excitement generated by the national team having no fixed abode. Rather than playing their half-baked football in an inconvenient pocket of north-west London—with the rest of the country out of sight and out of mind—England toured England, playing to the crowds in Manchester, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and beyond. For all the tradition of having a national stadium, in retrospect the decision to go back to Wembley now seems like a retrograde step.
However, the cost has been paid and so the ground must be used, but the FA need to remember the positive impact brought about by those wandering qualification campaigns and friendlies that brought the England team to the fans, rather than the other way round.
Do we somehow need a Non-League Day of sorts for England? With qualification to future European Championship tournaments set to be decided by a multi-tiered league system after France 2016, Hodgson and his successors may find themselves thrown into such a scenario due to decline instead of choice if the rot isn’t stopped soon.
You can find Greg on twitter at @gregianjohnsonCategories: Premier League , soccer