Non League Daily

Mike Amos On Life In The Northern League

So what does happen after the Lord Mayor's Show? Though the 125th anniversary of the first Northern League match isn't until September 7, we marked the 125th season in 2013-14.

 

It was wonderfully successful, probably the headline figure that gates in both divisions increased by more than 20%, an incredible and unprecedented achievement in an apathetic age.

We did much else. "Ground hop" events helped explain the gates increase – 1,500 for North Shields v West Allotment Celtic – but high profile events were spread across the season.

We persuaded the FA to let the old Amateur Cup – pretty femmer these days – return one more time to the North-East. We located the grave of Charles Samuel Craven, the league's founder, and tracked his grandson to Hong Kong. We had an exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester, a match against an FA XI on the day of the league's formation, the League Cup final at St James' Park, a wonderful church service, quite a few lunches and dinners. It may explain why the poor league chairman seems not to get any slimmer.

I should probably add that one or two copies of Northern Conquest, the best selling 125th anniversary history, still overflow our house and garage, too. They're just £4 – discount for bulk purchase! – and, honest, a real bargain.

So what next? How to keep a foot on the accelerator? How do we not only promote the game at Northern League level to the many who have never thought about watching it but also attract volunteers to help our clubs survive?

The first thought was to have a final fling on September 7, the inaugural day in 1889 when Birtley beat Elswick Rangers, Newcastle East End beat Darlington – kick-off delayed for an hour because the train was late – and South Bank won 3-0 against Auckland Town.

The problem about that is that this year September 7 falls on a Sunday and Northern League folk shy from Sundays as if clutching to their bosoms the commandment about doing everything in six days and jack-all on the seventh – "thy manservant nor thy maidservant, thy cattle nor the stranger that is within thy gate". We could do with a few more strangers within the gate.

Save for ground hop matches, I don't think a Northern League game has ever taken place on a Sunday, though there's nothing in the rules to dissuade it. It's because the better players can earn a few bob more elsewhere, of course – those not on a contract, anyway – but it does pretty much rule out matches on that day.

I don't think we'll have another lunch. There's a limit to how many Yorkshire puddings I can eat, and to how often folk can listen to yet anther 'ex cathedra' address.

It's not just about September 7, anyway. With luck it's about the next 125 years. Whilst Northern League gates have risen year-on-year since 2005, we've no reason for complacency. Division One crowds still just average 175, and last season that included some remarkable crowds at Celtic Nation and Spennymoor Town – the latter now promoted. The Division Two average, 75, was much boosted by that four figure gathering at North Shields.

As a league we certainly need to get our social media act together, but there's little evidence that such technological advance puts bums on seats or bodies on committees.

We have clubs which put us to shame, which minute-by-minute promote themselves through all manner of innovative avenues but with no real evidence that it gets folk away from the fireside on a cold February night –      or any other.

However we persuade people to watch so called non-league football, however we drag them from their inertia, I'm convinced that the answer is in making it a quality experience.

While it's impossible always to guarantee that the match will be much good, "quality" should be the key in everything from the warmth of the welcome to the state of the loos. Maybe pride comes into that, too.

There's no reason why the tea hut can't be top quality – if the Northern League has an Achilles heel, it's the burgers at many grounds – why newcomers can't metaphorically be embraced, why the whole experience can't speak of the camaraderie and family friendliness of which we so often boast.

All those things are within clubs' control, even with a small band of workers. Quality also means value for money and, with the possible exception of the average burger, I'm convinced that we provide it.

If the attendance graph is to continue rising, we need to refine and to tailor the word "quality" to every aspect of our operation – every match, every moment. Though the Lord Mayor's Show now passes into the history books, I like to think that it led the way.

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