Dan “The Mekon” talks about the latest feature to be added to the 3for3 podcast, and about why non-league football is a vital part of the game’s consciousness.
In late December of last year I got a phone call from my co-host Jamie, pitching a new feature for the 3for3 podcast called ‘The Non-League Lottery’. I listened as he outlined his vision for the segment and, although I didn’t initially appreciate the sentiment behind the idea, thought it sounded great and said ‘Let’s do it!’ The Daisy Cutter got involved and kind of ‘sponsored’ the segment, and we were away. Having been drawn a team myself (the mighty Warrington) I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what goes on at grass roots level these days, and I’ve been whisked back to my youth growing up in east London; my days playing under-10 football in Canning Town and watching non-league games at Mayesbrook Park and Victoria Road (now the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium), and I’ve remembered why I’m a football fan.
“Dad, can we go see the football one day?” A familiar cry around the country as youngsters plead with their parents to be taken to a match. These days, this will generally mean Dad setting fifty or sixty quid aside to take little Tommy (or Tammy, girls like football too) down to the nearest Premier League ground and stand in the shadow of a Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford or St. James’ Park (the one in Newcastle), taking in the enormity of life in the Premier League before being treated to some top-class football, played out before their very eyes on a velvety cushion of perfectly green pitch. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s probably the best option for a parent who can afford it and who knows how vital it is for his or her kid to be entertained, lest they be bombarded with constant cries of ‘this is boooooring’. In addition, we mustn’t forget that Premier League-standard stadia are comfortably the safest football arenas in the country, making them an ideal environment for small children to fall in love with the game.
There are also another group of people, the ones who, upon hearing the initial request from their little’uns, will bundle them up in scarves and coats and hats and walk them down to a rickety mish-mash of wood, concrete and corrugated iron to see a team of brick-layers and bankers dash around a heap of mud with some weeds and moss on it. The child will watch with a mixture of boredom and genuine puzzlement as obvious through-balls are ignored, knee-high lunges go unpunished and corners turn into something straight out of the squared circle of WWE. At half-time the kid will ask for something to eat and, rather than a gourmet pie or wrapped sandwich, will have a cone of greasy chips and a bottle of Panda Pops thrust into their freezing hands. They’ll hear words like ‘Portakabin’, ‘terracing’ and ‘Bovril’ for what is likely to be the first time in their short lives. They’ll watch as the team with the slightly tubby centre-forward squeeze out a filthy 1-0 win over the team with the comb-over goalkeeper, they’ll hear people cheer the goal (a scrappy tap-in following a battle royal at a set piece) like it was a Cup Final winner, and they’ll look up at Dad and ask him if this is what it’s always like. Dad will reply in the affirmative, and the kid will be hooked.
You see, a day out at your local non-league ground should be a rite of passage for any football fan in the country. Every youngster interested in seeing a live match should know what it is to stand in near-zero temperatures watching part-timers bust a gut for next to no money and even less acknowledgement. They should experience the thrill of watching people playing who are genuinely doing it because they love it, not for the money. Even if these kids go on to support teams with European ambitions, 30,000-seater stadiums and players who earn in a week what they’ll earn in a lifetime, the memory of the Isthmian League game they saw when they were 7 will stay with them forever, and will ensure that they understand what being a football fan is truly all about.
So how does the Non-League Lottery tie in with all of that? Well, on a first-hand level, it doesn’t. Because the draw is random, an entrant can end up with a team from completely the opposite end of the country – indeed, we’ve had people sign up from as far afield as Australia and Dubai – and therefore find themselves in no position to attend their games. What the Lottery does instead is introduce people to the notion of ‘following’ a team from the lower leagues. Once you’re assigned a club, you’re expected to follow that team’s progress as though it were your own club. Anyone who supports a Premier League or Football League side can click over to Sky Sports News or get on the BBC website and see how their team’s getting on. They can readily find information about transfers and staffing changes, they can organise trips to see matches, they can follow them all over the country on coaches. At non-league level that infrastructure doesn’t exist, so people have to seek this information out for themselves. We even spot-check people who have been drawn to make sure they’re keeping up with the team.
Ultimately what we want to do is make sure that football fans remember that there’s an entire country playing football outside the top four or five tiers of the pyramid, and that not only should they be paying attention to what’s going on down there, they should be actively supporting it. Each and every one of those teams is made up of people who want to be there no matter what, being watched by people who want to be there no matter what, and whose very existence is constantly under threat of financial collapse. We don’t expect people to travel hundreds of miles to attend every home game or invest in the club on a monetary level, we just want to let people know it’s there. Because if they know it’s there and they have any kind of emotional or mental stake in it, they will fight that little bit harder to keep it alive.
You can participate in the Non-League Lottery by following @3for3_ and @TheDaisyCutter1 on Twitter, and sending a tweet with #nonleaguelottery to the 3for3 account. Draws are made on the podcast, which is released every two weeks.
Dan Shoesmith is the co-host of the 3for3 podcast and was drawn Warrington Town in the Non-League Lottery. Follow him on Twitter @BigDan_83