It is what pre-season is all about – the opportunity for your local football team to invite a professional club down to a tight football ground, dominated by standing spectators around the outskirts of the pitch. A chance for those with a ‘regular’ job to test their ability against players featured on highlights programmes on a weekly basis.
Yet such contests can offer so much more, as emphasised when League One’s Doncaster Rovers ventured down the A1 to visit the South Lincolnshire village of Market Deeping, home of United Counties League Premier Division side, Deeping Rangers.
Part of the action
A quick stop at the bar was compulsory once we had squeezed into the car park, bursting at the seams with more fans than usual in attendance. Carrying as many drinks as we could without the risk of dropping one, we squeezed through the turnstiles – these particular ones were donated by the old Wembley Stadium.
Hold on. We had just come through the turnstiles with alcoholic drinks? The first hint that there is a more relaxed approach and friendly feel to the non-league game – this was all about the enjoyment.
Then there is the beauty of being so close to the pitch – you were a part of the game, not watching from the heights of Old Trafford or St James Park where you are left squinting to see the numbers on players’ shirts to work out who they are. We had paid little more than a fiver to be almost shoulder-to-shoulder with professional players, as opposed to the small fortune you would part ways with during a game in the top tiers, all for a view often inferior to what you would get on TV.
Here, players were posing for selfies with fans from both clubs and the opposition goalkeeper was subject to friendly banter, as opposed to verbal abuse, from a group of young fans behind the goal.
No escaping the culture and spirit
Yet the moment that really identified the humble nature of the event was several minutes into the second-half. Alex Kiwomya, a Chelsea Academy product and former England youth international, had torn the Deeping defence in the opening 45 minutes. Substituted at the break, the flying winger opted to sit in the stands with the Deeping fans – not in the dressing room or on the bench – instead, spending the best part of half an hour fielding questions from a couple of young spectators, in awe of his brief Chelsea past. These League One players had clearly welcomed the non-league football spirit and grasped the culture with both hands.
Unsurprisingly, Doncaster ran out comfortable winners – 8-1 in fact. But Deeping had shown spirit and passion, ultimately cut open by the extra quality of the League One side, underpinned by an outrageous halfway line volley from the experienced James Coppinger. Yet the overwhelming consensus was that this was a place to return to – non-league football had captured the imagination of those in attendance.
Value for money
A few weeks down the line and a text message pops up – ‘scrap the pub, let’s watch some football. Deeping Rangers?’
Immediately, it seemed like a great idea. We had a brief look at other fixtures in the local area – a few League One games priced £25. A quick discussion presented the unanimous decision that the £6 entry to Deeping Rangers was much better value for money.
There was also the Mourinho – Ronaldo media parade of Manchester United against Juventus as an option on TV. But it was just that – the days preceding the contest had been dominated by talk of Mourinho’s embarrassing outbursts at Chelsea the weekend previous, and the storm around allegations of Ronaldo’s misdemeanours. Not much discussion surrounding the actual football between two of Europe’s most famous clubs. I found myself choosing the non-league option over Champions League football – ‘real football’ ahead of what is now just as much a business as it is a sport within the professional heights of the game.
Every minute counts
Boston Town were the visitors under the floodlights, dwindling near the foot of the table, whilst Deeping were banking on their games in hand to propel towards the top of the ladder. And, yet again, the football did not disappoint.
Some of the passing was excellent, particularly from the home side as they flew into a 3-0 lead before the break. Yes, the tempo was slower than what you would witness in the upper echelons of the football pyramid and there were some simple balls that went astray but this certainly wasn’t “kick and hope football”, too often wrongly associated with non-league football teams.
A goal apiece after the break kept the action alive but neither side were prepared to see out the contest at 4-1. Deeping kept searching for more goals rather than resting on their lead, whilst Boston still appeared to feel they could get back into the game. Even with three minutes left, there were calls of “how long left, ref? Come on lads, still time here.”
In contrast, a Premier League match would often see the side comfortably leading just knocking the ball around, whilst the opponents sat with men behind the ball, seeing out the remaining minutes until the final whistle. This game was still sparky, exemplified by a Deeping player receiving a straight red for a late challenge despite the three-goal advantage.
These players were fighting for their place in the starting eleven – there was no kicking back for a place on the substitutes bench in the knowledge that you would still pick up your six-figure salary at the end of the month – you can understand why this level of football is brandished “proper football.”
Once again, non-league football had not let us down. We will be back again and urge any football fans who have not experienced such an occasion to give it a go – you will be pleasantly surprised.