Non-League Day 2014: The man behind the grassroots initiative
Non-League Day 2014: Gareth Llewellyn-Stevens speaks to the founder of the initiative, James Doe
Four years ago, a football fan with a plan set about getting more people to embrace non-league football on the traditional international weekend at the start of September.
Starting with just a Facebook event with limited backing, Non-League Day was founded by James Doe, a QPR fan from West London.
At the BBC’s Non-League Show, he met Kidderminster Harriers supporter Mike Bayly—now NLD’s campaign manager—and together they started to capture the imagination of local clubs up and down the country in just six weeks, and now it continues to grow both at home and abroad.
The concept is a simple one. It appeals to clubs and supporters alike, sometimes for different reasons, and has grown to the point that organisation becomes a year-round endeavour as it continues to gather momentum with more people buying into the thought of supporting their local club when there is no top-flight club football to be had.
There’s room for people to enjoy the Premier League and non-league, they shouldn’t have to choose
For some, it may be a protest vote against the big-money football and a perceived contempt at the top level. But others are rediscovering their love of the beautiful game at so-called “unglamorous” clubs, often with a culture “alien” to the Premier League and Championship.
Some may line up the usual cliches which surface every year from the moment the FA Cup third round draw has been made, but James and his small group of volunteers are only focused on the positives that can come from more football fans supporting their local clubs, and he hopes that a day dedicated to non-league football can only strengthen the relationship between the different worlds of Britain’s national sport.
“I’m very pleased with the way it’s gone so far and it has totally surpassed my expectations,” he tells The Sport Review. “I really have to stop sometimes and check that this really is all happening.
“I believe that there’s room for people to enjoy the Premier League and non-league, they shouldn’t have to choose. Scheduling of top-flight games often makes it really easy to see games at both levels in a weekend or even on the same day.
“The future of football will be decided by the fans. Top clubs are businesses at the end of the day, and I don’t blame them for wanting to maximise their revenue.
“They shouldn’t feel they have to contribute to supporting non-league football, but it’s much better if they do and hence many of them get involved in Non-League Day.
“If they see the value of participating in events like ours, and so do their fans, then hopefully we’ll become some kind of conduit to building stronger relationships between the two levels.”
Far from being a one-off idea like so many that come and go, Non-League Day continues to find a growing support from everywhere, even in a year when the summer transfer window exceeded £800 million for the first time.
“Support from clubs, players, fans, companies and the media has increased massively,” he adds on how far Non-League Day has come.
“Backing from Premier League and Football League clubs (even those in League 1 and 2) is almost a formality now whereas previously we may have been rebuffed or even ignored.
“More importantly, from the non-league side, more and more clubs and leagues are buying into the idea too. The ideas and schemes that clubs come up with to entice new fans in has been really amazing with some being so inventive—free mushrooms at Bungay Town—that they create fantastic headlines and publicity for the day as a whole and everyone involved in it.
“We’ve also fostered important relationships with groups like Kick It Out, who are running more events than ever around the country on Non-League Day, and we’re also hoping that Prostate Cancer UK, our charity partner, will do well out of their association with us—it looks promising as Conference sponsors Vanarama have said they’ll give them 10p for every person who attends a match in that league.
“We’re also seeing our first sister event take place in Germany and Switzerland during the next international break in October which is something I’ve always hoped for. Called Lokalrunde, their approach is slightly different to ours but the aim is essentially the same and you’ll see quite a few similarities in the branding.”
With Euro 2016 qualification on the horizon, there could be a valid argument that getting behind your country is a more worthwhile way of spending the first weekend in September, but James believes there are plenty of reasons why getting behind a non-league club can be more valuable.
“Quite simply, real live sport is an experience,” he admits. “Going to watch one non-league game a month will almost certainly cost less than a pay TV subscription and you might well be able to get your whole family in too.
“It’s a great way to engage with and become part of your local community. The atmosphere at non-league games are far more relaxed than at bigger clubs. There’s no pat down by security as you enter the ground, you’re not told where you can stand—you can still do this—you can have a drink and eat often homemade food next to the pitch and you’ll see and hear from some fantastic characters.
“The grounds are often quirky and unique with some amazing names and sometimes stunning backdrops. The quality of the football often surprises first timers too.
“The passion that people have for their clubs is just as strong as anywhere else and perhaps more so as many fans will give up hours of their time volunteering to make sure things tick over and NLD has become as much a celebration of them as the it has the players and their efforts.”
Such has been the success of Non-League Day in its first three years, James admits that he is proud of many achievements as a result of the campaign, but it is the gratitude of the clubs and wider non-league community that stands out.
It is that positive feedback which convinces him that what he is doing is something worth continuing, despite the increasing time and costs involved.
“There is still so much to do,” he concedes. “We’ve made it to year five and it’s getting bigger every time, but I can guarantee you that the majority of football fans in this country have still never heard of NLD.
“I regularly meet people devoted to non-league football who have no idea it’s going ahead, never mind fans of Premier League clubs. While this is the case, we’ve got to keep going. My goal is to make NLD a recognised part of the sporting calendar which people, even if they’re not that interested, will instantly know what it’s about.
So what does the future hold for the Non-League Day adventure? Having a more organised structure and expanding their links with other groups like Supporters Direct are just two developments James is exploring while continuing to look for the best way to secure funding.
“We’ve received numerous offers of sponsorship over the years but we’ve rarely been happy with what companies were offering or the type of business they were,” he adds.
“To be honest, although we’ve always needed money, I’ve been reluctant to take it as I felt it would somehow damage the purity or ethos of our fan-led event so it has been tricky.
“I’d love for someone to come in and pay Mike and I to run it full-time or give us loads of money to spend on marketing. When you consider we’ve achieved what we have on little more than £1,000 a year, the mind boggles on what could be achieved with a proper budget.”
So while the Euro 2016 qualification campaign gets under way for many nations on Saturday—and for England in Switzerland on Monday—James will be found at Champion Hill in East Dulwich, home of Ryman League club Dulwich Hamlet for their clash with Hampton & Richmond Borough, for one of the stand-out games on this season’s Non-League Day.
“The club have never been at home on NLD and always promised they’d go to town on it if they did,” he says.
“They are running a ‘Pay What You Like’ scheme to encourage new people to come and Kick It Out will be running a event there too—one of only four nationwide. There are several other things planned too as they hope to set their highest crowd since their Champion Hill ground re-opened in the early ‘90s.
“It is unofficially our showpiece game in London and is the most centrally located so if you’re not too far away then get down there. If it’s too far then you can find your nearest match by putting your postcode into the map tool on our website and see what’s on near you.”
For more details about Non-League Day or to find out where your nearest non-league game is, visit their website at http://www.nonleagueday.co.uk