Non-league football in the North has experienced a post-pandemic boom, with fans flocking to games in record numbers.
Supporting a club in the top four divisions of English football costs more now than ever before. Season tickets can cost over £2,000 each, match tickets as much as £97 each, memberships in order to get match tickets £75, replica tops £70, and then TV subscriptions on top of that around £600 a year.
Clubs seem to squeeze fans for cash like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube. Add that to aloof and fabulously wealthy footballers, and it’s not hard to see why fans might start to feel alienated from the sport they love.
And that’s where non-league football comes in, as discussed in Reach’s latest North in Numbers podcast:
Northern clubs in tiers nine and 10 of the English football pyramid welcomed a combined total of 544,489 people through their turnstiles this season.
Average gates in the Northern Counties East League – which covers Yorkshire – are up by 28% compared to 2018/19, the last season before the pandemic.
In the Northern League – which covers the North East – they’re up by 16%.
In the North West Counties League – which, unsurprisingly, covers the North West – pre-pandemic figures aren’t available, but its attendances make up more than half of the Northern total.
“I think we’ve had a very welcome increase,” said Mike Snowdon of the Northern Football League, which covers the North East of England and is the world’s second-oldest league after the EFL.
“Last season was obviously badly affected by the pandemic. But even then, people were just desperate and glad to get out of the house and go and see some football. And I think that’s carried on into this season where attendances in the first division are up by around 30%.
“And I think there was also perhaps a weariness of the top teams here in the region. That’s clearly been overtaken since the Saudi takeover in Newcastle, but I think people were just a little bit, as I say, disillusioned and stopped going.
“Hopefully people have come to Northern League games and thought all this is quite good fun and kept on coming back. I think like me, they perhaps have done the same kind of thing as me and been pleasantly surprised by it. The quality of football and the ease of getting in and watching the games.”
South Manchester club West Didsbury & Chorlton have also seen an increase in the number of people attending their games in recent years.
“I think it’s down to a combination of things,” club spokesman Graham Ellwood said.
“I think there’s kind of a few people who have grown a bit disillusioned with the professional side of the game.
“We have a lot of people who come to watch us who say that they used to go to United or City, or whoever, but they can’t afford to go with their families anymore.
“Or the way that they used to enjoy going to watch these teams kind of isn’t isn’t possible anymore.
“So we find a lot of people come down as a family, or as a big group of mates.”
“The pandemic meant a lot of people were focused on their community and what’s on their doorstep a little bit more.
“People who were more likely to look at what’s in their local community, rather than the bigger events.”
The club has gained a certain amount of fame for its left-leaning support and lively atmosphere.
“I think we’ve got probably one of the best songbooks in non league.
“We’ve got a lot of really creative fans and it’s not the kind of generic songs that you’d hear, it’s pretty unique stuff. It makes it quite unique.
“It’s definitely a very left-leaning supporters base, a very inclusive football club.
“It definitely feels like there’s a higher percentage of female supporters than you would get at other football grounds. I think the support likes to believe that they’re very inclusive, and that everyone is welcome.
“A lot of like the banners you’ll see on a match day, including LGBTQ plus, and refugees welcome.
“Anecdotally, a lot of people say that they weren’t really into football when they started coming down to West, what their view of football, and especially non league football, wasn’t actually what they found.”
Hallam FC are the second oldest football club in the world, and have just enjoyed a bumper promotion season.
They finished top of the Northern Counties East League Division One with an impressive 102 points, scoring 103 goals.
Hallam’s home games have had an average attendance of 614 this season.
That’s up from 267 before the pandemic and just 80 10 years ago.
So what has helped the club achieve this growth in crowds?
Club spokesperson Ian Jones shared his thoughts: “I think we’re very fortunate in Sheffield, that it’s such a sporting city, not just a football city, but it’s a sporting city.
“I think there’s a lot of alienated fans and lots of people who felt disassociated from their football clubs for whatever reason that may be.
“We have such a good product at Hallam where you can drink in the stands, there’s no segregation, you can talk to the away fans, you can talk to the players, you can talk to the management.
“You can bring your kids to come play on the pitch after the game. It’s very family oriented. You don’t have to drive too far.”
People’s hunger to get out after the pandemic played its part too: “people were just craving to get out of the house.
“People who love football didn’t care what football it was. People were just happy to come watch some football.”
Then there’s the cost: “people realized how much fun it was in comparison to spending well, you know how much an adult tickets these days of championship game you’re looking at? Like maybe 40 quid? I don’t know how much kids’ tickets are, but you must be looking at at least 10 pounds. So if it’s a family of a family of four, two adults, two kids, you’ve probably spent the best part of 100 quid on tickets. Yet at Hallam you spend 16. It’s a massive difference.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.