Non-League Day 2019 - 12th October
Non-League Day marks its tenth year on Saturday 12th October. Campaign Manager Mike Bayly looks back at the event’s origins and highlights from the last decade.
In 2010, Queens Park Rangers supporter James Doe attended The Hoops pre-season fixture at Tavistock AFC. Realising the sell-out crowd would help finance the Devon club for the rest of the season, he pondered how more fans could be mobilised to visit their local non-League sides.
Shortly afterwards, James created a Facebook page, suggesting Premier League and Championship fans watch their local semi-professional or amateur club on the upcoming international weekend, rather than go without a game. And so Non-League Day was born.
The inaugural event in September 2010 saw attendances across the National League System increase around ten percent, and included enough feel-good stories - such as a group of delayed tourists at Gatwick airport decamping to a nearby match – for the national media and governing bodies to take interest.
From modest beginnings, Non-League Day was on its way to becoming an established and highly-anticipated part of the football calendar, backed by the FA, Premier League, Kick it Out, Football Supporters’ Association and most importantly, the clubs and fans themselves.
The following year, Blue Square, then sponsors of the Football Conference, organised the ‘Blue Square Ground Hop’, arranging staggered kick-offs across the three different divisions.
Hosts were Bishop’s Stortford (North) Chelmsford City (South) and Braintree Town (National). Further credibility was gained in 2012 when anti-discrimination organisation Kick It Out partnered with Non-League Day to promote their “one game one community” message at a showcase Conference South clash between Bromley and Welling United.
Now a recognised annual event, Non-League Day 2013 demonstrated the innovative ways clubs were attracting fans.
Anglian Combination side Bungay Town made international headlines by paying supporters five pence to attend their game against Brandon Town. The Black Dogs were rewarded with a thumping 11-0 win and a well-deserved spot in the global limelight.
However, 2014 represented the year Non-League Day really came into its own.
In the build-up, several media outlets produced in-depth articles on the semi-professional game, highlighting its volunteer ethos, sense of community and relative affordability. Meanwhile, Conference sponsors Vanarama ran the ‘Thumbs Up For Non-League Day’ campaign to raise money for Prostate Cancer (Non-League Day’s official charity partner), endorsed by Premier League players, politicians and celebrities.
The exposure contributed to attendances spiking across the country, notably at Dulwich Hamlet where an astonishing 2,856 witnessed a 2-2 draw against Hampton & Richmond Borough in the Isthmian League Premier Division.
Many other clubs reported doubling or even tripling their average gate. To top off a memorable day, Western League outfit Welton Rovers organised post-match hamster racing at their West Clewes ground.
Vanarama continued their fund-raising activities for Prostate Cancer in 2015 launching a #wearthewig campaign, and by 2016 Premier League and Championship clubs were regularly promoting Non-League Day in their programmes and social media channels, signposting supporters without a game to their nearest semi-professional fixture.
To capitalise on the increased coverage, non-League clubs continued to innovate and offer something different to potential first-time visitors.
West Didsbury & Chorlton of the North West Counties Football League ran a ‘Non-League Dog Day’ in 2017 for their fixture against Squires Gate, with discounted entry to anyone bringing their four-legged friend.
Sky Sports were so taken with the idea a TV crew was dispatched to film the afternoon. A crowd of over 300, along with 30 assorted canines, saw the home side win 4-2.
It is credit to the clubs, leagues and governing bodies that every season new ideas and plans emerge to engage the local public.
Last year the FA Vase and FA Trophy were on show at St Austell and Peterborough Sports respectively, while over at Grantham Town, free gingerbread men were handed out in recognition of the club and town’s historical association with the confectionary.
No doubt similar stories will emerge from this year’s tenth instalment.
That Non-League Day has reached this landmark with limited resources is reflective of the co-operative spirit running through non-League football, as founder James Doe explains:
“When I set up Non-League Day in 2010 I had no idea it would grow to become the event it is today, let alone reach a 10th year. It has only been possible thanks to the tireless efforts of a small group of volunteers who have put in considerable amounts of their own time and money to make sure it happens, and our partner organisations who have helped us spread the message that bit further each time. “
As for the future of Non-League Day, only time will tell. With sister events taking place in France and Germany, and more nations anticipated to join up in 2020, there is scope for a pan-European celebration of semi-professional and amateur football. These may seem ambitious plans, but as the last decade has shown, a lot can be achieved when football fans work together for a common goal.