THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Ian Plenderleith looks back at the stunning contribution made to non-league football made by Tony Kempster, who passed away in June

Fans of the non-League game were unanimous in mourning this past June when one of its most devoted figures, Tony Kempster, died of cancer. This column has featured Kempster’s impeccable online guide to the nether leagues of England before, and used it for reference on countless occasions. He defied all internet trends by investing an unbelievable amount of time and energy to inform hundreds of thousands of fans about the structure of non-League football. There was no commercial motive, and there was no easy escape route into blogging and Twitter. Typically for the non-League milieu, Kempster’s work was born of dedication.

Blogs immediately highlighted the attributes of both the modest man and his wonderful website, the shyly christened Tony’s Guide To English Football. Kempster “arguably has brought more than anyone else to non-League football over the last ten years or so”, wrote twohundredpercent. “If non-league football was your religion, Tony’s site was a bible,” observed the blog Cold Tuesday Evenings. Even Football Cynic was moved to write “this website really was the best football statistics website in the world”.

The latter also reported that “it is understood that Tony’s son and a number of other enthusiasts are planning to continue his work”. As Kempster’s health deteriorated, a notice on his site announced that it would be frozen at the end of the 2008-09 season. The importance of non-League statistics in relation to matters of life and death is of course negligible. And yet there at the top of the page, with a flaming “NEW” logo, was a link to the structure (with maps) of the top four levels of the non-League pyramid for the 2009-10 season. Was it Kempster’s final contribution, a bridge to the future? You feel he must have wanted his project to be built upon.

That page alone contains more useful and interesting information than you could find by trawling a hundred other random football sites. Just as Ordnance Survey fetishists never tire of poring over a map, non-League devotees can contemplate this page for hours and always find something new. There are no adverts, no pop-ups, and no moving graphics, just lists of teams and dots on a map of England. Because it’s simply the place names and the geography of non-League football that make it so fascinating.

You discover towns you’d never heard of, and you are reassured that somewhere in that town there is a football ground, and a team, and a couple of hundred happily grumbling fans. If you’re the treasurer at Osset Albion or Mangotsfield United, you can use other pages on the site to calculate exactly how much petrol your team will need to cover their travels over the coming year (Norton and Stockton Ancients, for example, had an 86-mile round-trip to Prudhoe Town last season).

If you are the kind of person who’s only interested in the journey, not the destination, you can follow the FA Vase all the way from Clipstone Welfare’s first qualifying round exit in September through to Whitley Bay’s triumph in the final over Glossop North End nine months later. Or if you fancy something a little harder on the tongue, check out the Scottish section (in tandem with the superb site Non-League Scotland) and see how Lugar Boswell Thistle fared against Craigmark Burntonians in the Ayrshire District League.

It’s telling that many of the online tributes came from AFC Wimbledon fans who admitted that they were lost in 2002 upon forming their new team, but were quickly brought up to speed by Kempster on the frequent restructuring, quirky promotion and relegation rules, and the stringent ground regulations of the non-League landscape. While following the Wimbledon of old, they were presumably no different to fans of other professional teams who disregard non-League football except when they come up against an opponent from Didcot or Tonbridge in the FA Cup. Put another way, we may not be interested in the foundations of our house, but we’d definitely notice if they weren’t there –given the number of mergers, takeovers and extinctions at non-League level, perhaps we need to check more often that the foundations are still secure.

 Clubs also expressed their gratitude. The site was “always the one I looked at on a Sunday morning for results from the previous day”, wrote Runcorn Linnets manager Steve Wilkes following the notice from Kempster’s family that he had passed away the previous evening. Luke Edwards of the Hyde United Supporters Club added: “I used the website to help me with my radio broadcasts, they were a life-saver at times.” And journalists too, of course, who love nothing more than well-presented, accurate information. “Tony has made a unique and remarkable contribution to the game that we all love, a true gentleman to all who knew him,” wrote Kevin Anderson of BBC Surrey and Sussex. “Non-League is one huge extended family in which we all laugh with each other and mourn for each other.”

The only fixtures you can’t find at the site are the from the top four divisions. “The Premier and Football Leagues asked me to pay them over £9,000 to publicise their fixtures on this site,” Kempster wrote, politely declining an offer from our old friends at Dataco, the agency that collects “copyright” fees from media wanting to publicise games (see WSC 269).

This symbolises in a sentence everything that Tony’s Guide To English Football is about – years of toil to provide a service for the good of the game, rather than pressing a button on a computer to create a fixture list then sitting back on your fat corporate buttocks, banking money for nothing. He was rewarded last year with the Football Supporters’ Federation annual services to supporters award. Our reward is his legacy, backed by the hope that enough non-League aficionados will be motivated to continue his diligent craft.

From WSC 270 August 2009

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