Semi-pro football is a world away from the cash soaked Premier League. Chris Sykes explains why he loves semi-pro football so much...
It should be something every football fan does at least once before they die. No matter whether the team you support is in the Premier League or Football League, every football fan should at some point in their life, go and watch a local semi-professional or amateur match. And I mean football from a small local league, not something like the Blue Square North. Find a game that’s from about Step 7 in the football pyramid system and go and watch it.
This season, I began doing just that. I started covering the Wearside League, based in North East England, for my local radio station. In just a handful of months, I’ve seen a different side to football.
There’s something unique about the football I’ve been watching. There’s a light heartedness, a relaxedness, a marvelousness to it. The atmosphere at games is light and warm. Semi-pro football is, quite obviously, not taken as seriously as the cash drenched and star flooded Premier League. Yet that’s to semi-pro football’s benefit, not to its detriment.
Firstly, you are so much closer to the action. You stand behind a metal railing which is just feet away from the pitch. If there’s a punch up on the touchline in front of you, you could join in. If the ball goes out of play, a fan can ungracefully jog to retrieve it. No such thing as ball boys at this level.
There’s a simplicity to semi-pro football. It’s down to earth and you rarely get any artificially inflated egos from players, club staff or fans. And if someone is being too cocky, a sharp put down soon shunts them back into place.
The first ever semi-pro game I went to was a blustery Wednesday night encounter between Silksworth Rangers and Coxhoe Athletic, a bottom of the table clash in the Wearside League. I remember the game, not for the actions of the players, but for the actions of a fan.
I was standing in the optimum spot, bang on halfway. About 20 minutes from the end, the linesman on the touchline closest to me turned to his left and bellowed down the line: “Get behind the barrier, please.”
I looked to where the official was shouting. A fan had scrambled under the railings, walked over to the corner flag and in front of dozens of other fans, players and officials, began unashamedly relieving his bladder. You wouldn’t get that at Old Trafford in front of the SKY cameras.
But the best thing about semi-pro football is that there’s a sense that this is football as it should be. The ordinary fan can relate to it more because semi-pro football is how a fan sees and plays the game. Fans play in parks with their friends and this, essentially, is semi-pro football. It’s a bunch of friends who join a team that plays at a ground in a park behind someone’s house.
These grounds aren’t the 50,000 capacity all seaters you find in the Premier League. In fact, there are rarely seats at all. The only seats you find are in the dilapidated dug outs.
Another ground I visited had, what I presume used to be a long since abandoned dug out on one side of the pitch. The translucent plastic glass covering the structure had been punctured, shattered and broken. Jagged holes were present where the plastic glass has been subjected to an aerial blitz of footballs.
Midway during the game, a blocked headed defender lumped a clearance out towards this twisted structure. The ball crashed through another pane of the plastic, snapping more bits off. It looked more like a practise target for a stealth bomber than a former dug out.
Want a half time pie? Forget having to escape before the end of the half to avoid the queues. Short waits and cheap prices make the food worth it, even if the food’s quality is sometimes dubious. A burger my friend bought at a game still gives him nightmares.
The fans that go are friendly. I’ve yet to encounter a moronic blockhead who just hurls abuse, or an attention grabbing pitch invader in the Wearside League.
And when the game is done, the players and staff shake hands and get on with their lives. There’s no sour grape sucking or lambasting of match officials that you get from Premier League managers.
In short, semi-pro football is a world away from the headline hitting professional game. There’s an innocence to it. You don’t have the arrogance, the extreme controversies or the shocking scandals to it. And that’s semi-pro football’s great advantage over the professional game. It’s football as it was intended.