This weekend is a special occasion in the English football season.
To some that may sound strange given there’s no Premier League or Championship football to be had, but for many others it’s a fantastic occasion to celebrate English football as Non-League Day, the campaign to promote semi-professional and amateur football, returns for a fifth consecutive season.
For non-league clubs up and down the country, it’s an occasion to be celebrated. Clubs like my hometown team, Nelson FC of the North West Counties Premier Division.
Two weeks ago, having worked in football for the past six years, I agreed to take on the role of Chief Executive at the club. I had the opportunity to work at Premier League or Football League clubs but going back to Nelson was an easy choice for me.
I grew up in Nelson, a small old industrial town in Pendle, Lancashire, with the club tucked away on Victoria Park, often forgotten about by locals. However, Nelson FC is more than 130-years-old and has an incredible story to tell.
We were the first English club to tour overseas and in 1923 became the first ever English team to beat Real Madrid away from home. I love stuff like that in football, I’m not ashamed to admit to being a bit of a romantic, and looking through the old photos of little old Nelson FC through the years really hits home what an honour it is to be Chief Executive of this wonderful football club.
I’m planning to write to Real Madrid inviting them over for a replay next summer, I fancy our chances again personally.
The day-to-day running of a club like Nelson is more than a little challenging, like all non-league clubs we rely on the hard work of volunteers and a small team of people doing everything they can to keep the club running.
Our Manager prints the programmes, a club Director mans the turnstiles and the Chairman can be seen mopping the toilets. Groundsmen spend 6 hours every day making sure the pitch is in perfect condition come matchday.
That kind of dedication and commitment is something that you don’t get to see or hear about often, the hours put in despite people having full time jobs and families to take care of.
For me this is what makes Non-League Day extra special, a chance to celebrate and focus on non-league football and the unsung heroes who give up so much without any recognition.
One of the most pleasing things for me as a new Chief Executive is spending time with the dedicated individuals involved at the club, people who go above and beyond because they care about the club. The big challenge is to build around that with new initiatives and strategies that can help move the club forward and, most importantly, better engage Nelson FC with the local community.
The historical role of football clubs as representations of their local communities has been discussed in great detail by social and sports historians over the years.
However, in the modern era of globalisation and commercialisation within football, many top-level professional clubs sometimes struggle, in my opinion, to get the right balance.
With an influx of multi-billionaire foreign owners, international sponsors and in some cases outrageous ticket prices, it’s easy to see why many would questio0n whether elite clubs still represent or care for their local communities.
Many football fans of such clubs feel disengaged and their interests ignored, as highlighted by the recent march for ‘Affordable Football for All’ organised by the Football Supporters' Federation.
For clubs at the other end of the scale like Nelson FC, it’s more important than ever that we work to serve our local community, engage with local people and encourage the next generation to support and feel a belonging to their local team.
“When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.” Dennis Bergkamp
I hope as many people as possible take the time this weekend to visit their local non-league club and get to enjoy a day out at the football, maybe without the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League or the Championship, but full of the integrity and hard work that our national game relies upon.
The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.