So heartwarming to see non-league football thriving all over England, from Falmouth to Steeton, with record crowds despite the Covid pandemic – Simon Carter

It was a record-breaking afternoon in the Mole Valley on Boxing Day - and not just on the pitch where Havant & Waterlooville suffered their heaviest ever defeat.

By Simon Carter
Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 11:09 am
Bognor Regis attracted a crowd of over 2,200 for Tuesday's Sussex derby with Isthmian League Premier leaders Worthing. Picture: Lyn Phillips.
Bognor Regis attracted a crowd of over 2,200 for Tuesday's Sussex derby with Isthmian League Premier leaders Worthing. Picture: Lyn Phillips.

Dorking Wanderers attracted a club record crowd to see them inflict an 8-0 drubbing on Paul Doswell’s National League South promotion hopefuls.

An attendance of 2,048 packed into the Meadowbank Stadium, completely unaware of the remarkable 90 minutes they were about to see.

No doubt those who get their football kicks from sitting in an armchair watching the Premier League and Champions League would scoff at that crowd figure.

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Banbury United - from the seventh tier of the English football pyramid - attracted a crowd of 1,221 for their Southern League Central game with Stratford on Monday. It was one of the club's biggest league attendances in a quarter of a century. Picture: Julie Hawkins

And I doubt whether the Dorking v Hawks attendance failed to make an impact on Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow either.

I mentioned Purslow in this column recently for his astonishing and arrogant claim that ‘everything good in English football sits in the Premier League.’

He was reacting to the publication of a fan-led review which called for the Premier League to be overseen by an independent regulator.

Purslow couldn’t have been more wrong if he tried, and evidence was everywhere in English towns over this festive period.

A very shallow standing area runs the whole length of one side of Dorking Wanderers' Meadowbank Stadium. Picture: Simon Carter

While the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales had either banned supporters from attending games or limiting the crowds to just a few hundred, from deepest Cornwall to the more traditional football hotbeds of the north west, clubs in this country were recording record attendances.

Clubs, that is, who live their life far, far away from the glamour, the wall-to-wall media coverage, and the obscene wealth that is today’s Premier League.

Dorking is a good place to start, and not just because I was sat in the stand to watch the record books shredded. I have since been asked ‘was it as bad as it sounds?’ for Hawks. An easy answer - yes. It could easily have been even worse.

Meadowbank, even by non-league standards, is a strange ground. Hemmed in by a housing estate on one side and a shopping arcade on the other - literally a Rory Delap throw-in away from the shops - it boasts a feature I’ve never seen before: both a covered terrace AND a covered stand behind one goal.

A covered terrace and a covered stand behind one of the goals at Dorking's Meadowbank Stadium. Picture: Simon Carter

There is only room for one row of supporters down the side that borders the houses, and similarly behind the other goal. Still, Meadowbank has its charms: This is non-league football, remember - the heart and soul of Pele’s beautiful game.

Dorking is not a big place - around a 12,000 population - and therefore crowds have generally been in three figures as they have rocketed up the pyramid. The Mole Valley area is not a football hot-bed. Not yet, anyway.

Things could change, though, if Marc White has his way. The Dorking manager was one of the club’s founding fathers in 1999 when the club started off playing in the West Crawley League. As recently as 2011 they were playing in Division 3 of the Sussex County League. If they win promotion this season they could be facing Oldham Athletic, Notts County, Wrexham, Stockport County, Torquay United and a host of other ex-EFL clubs next season in the top tier of non-league.

Dorking’s rise is an astonishing story and certainly worth keeping an eye on, whoever you follow.

Some of the Hawks fans that made up a record 2,048 crowd at Dorking's Meadowbank Stadium on Boxing Day. Picture: Dave Haines

Elsewhere, it really was remarkable, as well as heart-warming, to see the attendances that some non-league clubs attracted, even during a pandemic.

Dorking’s 2,048 crowd for the slaying of Hawks was the eighth highest in the National League South this season, and the highest anywhere other than Dulwich Hamlet or Maidstone. Indeed, the latter two clubs boast 17 of the top 18 highest crowds of the NLS season.

Dulwich are averaging a superb 2,634 with a seasonal high of 3,334 against Ebbsfleet United. Ridiculous figures for the sixth tier.

On Boxing Day, Stockport County packed in 8,896 for a National League (fifth tier) derby against Altrincham. That wasn’t too far short of the 9,537 crowd that saw them beat neighbouring Manchester City in a second tier match at Edgeley Park in March 2002, a sobering reminder of how today’s footballing landscape has been moulded via money.

Other Boxing Day crowds in the National League were 3,830 (Torquay v Yeovil), 3,759 (Bromley v Southend) and 3,699 (Aldershot v Woking). Dover only managed 697 against Dagenham, but bear in mind the Kent club haven't won all season

A few weeks ago Notts County recorded the highest National League crowd of all time, a stunning 12,843 against Solihull Moors. For 18 months in the mid 1990s I covered Notts for the Derby Telegraph, and even when they were in the second tier they didn’t get crowds that high.

Of course, Notts aren’t a ‘traditional’ non-league club. It’s not like Wealdstone or Boreham Wood attracting over 12,000. As recently as 1991/92 they were in the top flight. They voted for the Premier League but were relegated the season before - inserts tongue in cheek - Sky created football. When they were relegated to the National League - having voted for the Premier League’s creation - I did laugh. Same with Luton, who were also eager to milk Murdoch’s cash cow and who were also relegated in 1991/92. Serves them right.

To fully appreciate any success story, you have to revisit the past. Those non-league crowds I’ve already mentioned would have been huge in the professional game when I was a teenager. In the 1985/86 season - the first after the twin horrors of Bradford and Heysel the previous May - nine clubs in the old Fourth Division averaged under 2,000. Torquay’s was just 1,240. Burnley only averaged 3,204.

Up in north Wales, Wrexham averaged 1,820 that season. Compare that to the regular 8,000 attendances they have packed in to watch NON-LEAGUE football this season. Amazing what some high-profile American owners, a bit of money and some fresh optimism can do!

And here’s a remarkable stat. In 1987/88 Oxford entertained Luton in the old First Division; in 2009/10 they hosted them in a non-league game - and attracted a bigger crowd (10,603 compared to 6,804).

Oxford, therefore, welcomed a bigger attendance for a non-league game than they did for a home top flight fixture with Manchester United in April 1988 (8,966). That might sum up the state of First Division football in the late 80s, but it also says a lot about the non-league game in the 21st century.

The merry band of Premier League ‘Johnny Come Latelys’ - tourists, basically, not fans - might be shocked to realise Pep’s City were playing Stockport as recently as 20 years ago. They would be even more amazed, therefore, to discover that in 1998/99 City slummed it in the third tier for a season. Imagine that now!

One of their local derbies was a trip to Macclesfield Town, whose Moss Rose ground was poor by non-league standards when the Silkmen were in the Conference. As a result, Manchester City - today one of the richest clubs in the world - played a league game in front of just 6,381. And they only beat Macclesfield thanks to an 86th minute goal.

The footballing Gods decided to send those two clubs down vastly different paths. At the end of the season the visitors went up, the hosts went down. They have never met each other since in a league game and it’s unlikely they ever will again.

After being relegated from the EFL in 2019/20, Macclesfield Town were eventually wound up. They were by no means the first former Football League club to suffer that fate - Aldershot, Maidstone, Halifax, Scarborough, Darlington, Hereford and Bury all spring to mind - and they almost certainly won’t be the last.

This season, a phoenix club has taken its place in the North West Counties League, the ninth tier of English football. Two days after Christmas, they attracted 4,353 for a game against Winsford. For context, this is the same level as the Wessex Premier League featuring clubs such as Moneyfields, Baffins Milton and US Portsmouth. Astonishing, really, if you think about it.

Everywhere you looked, you could see the attraction non-league holds for so many. Whether people just want to support their local club, or whether they feel disenfranchised from their nearest professional outfit, whether they can’t afford professional football … whatever their reasons, it underlines the incredible appetite for football - at any level - that exists in this country. Sorry Christian, that’s the truth.

In the eighth tier - one above the Wessex Premier - Marine pulled in 2,150. I watched Hawks at Marine last season in the FA Cup, sadly behind closed doors. The ground only has two very shallow terraces and a stand behind one of the goals. Houses border one length of the pitch, leaving no space for spectators. Makes the Meadowbank seem spacious. It must have been a real squeeze to get that many in on Monday but, having been denied a crowd for Tottenham’s visit last January, no non-league club deserved a bumper crowd more.

In the 10th tier of football in this country - the TENTH tier - Falmouth attracted a crowd of 1,171 for their home game with Penryn Athletic, a South West Peninsula League record attendance. Who said Cornwall is purely a rugby union county?

At the same level - one below the likes of Fareham, Horndean and AFC Portchester - Steeton FC pulled in 972 for a North West Counties League Division 1 North fixture against another phoenix club, Bury AFC. Ok, a large number would have come from the visiting team, but that's not the point. I’d never heard of Steeton before, had no idea where Steeton was, but thanks to the power of football I now know they’re a team from a West Yorkshire village.

More locally, Gosport Borough attracted their second highest league crowd of the Southern League Premier South season, 642, for their loss to Hartley Wintney. A healthy figure, for sure, but elsewhere in the seventh tier on Monday were crowds of 1,658 (Bromsgrove v Stourbridge), 1,221 (Banbury v Stratford) and 1,142 (Hednesford v Rushall).

Hawks could only attract 972 for Tuesday’s NL South game with Hemel, though it would surely have been much higher had they not been battered at Dorking 48 hours earlier. Across the county border, though, seventh tier Bognor Regis welcomed over 2,200 for a Sussex derby with Worthing in the Isthmian League Premier - a huge leap on their seasonal average of 872.

I repeat, these are crowds which the Premier League tourist would laugh at, but each one speaks volumes for non-league football.

It’s easy to support a professional club, even easier a Premier League one, and easier still if they’re part of the elite.

Less easy, of course, to follow a reborn Macclesfield or a Stockport, especially with Premier League elite on your doorstep.

Unless, of course, you’re fed up with the Premier League and their crazy salaries, the expensive ticket prices, the ridiculous kick off times, the elite’s arrogance, and the non-stop moaning of Klopp et al.

And if you ARE fed up with all that, welcome to an ever-growing club.

The likes of Falmouth, Steeton, Dorking, Longwell Green and Bromsgrove would love to welcome you again in 2022 …