Ramsbottom United an example of clubs that should be celebrated on Non-League Day
9 October ~ Around 4.20pm last Saturday, Sergio Agüero scored his fifth goal in Manchester City’s 6-1 rout of Newcastle United. His accomplishment, aided by the collective global talents of City’s £350 million squad, was watched by nearly 55,000 people. Fifteen miles away, on the northern peripheries of Greater Manchester, Ramsbottom United goalkeeper Grant Shenton was fumbling in Anthony Carney’s weak header to gift Barwell FC a 2-1 lead.
The crowd of 176 react with an air of muttered resignation; the calamitous goal is emblematic of a wretched Northern Premier League Premier Division campaign, which has seen The Rams salvage just two points from their opening thirteen games.
Ramsbottom United’s challenges this season aren’t restricted to the pitch. Despite playing at their highest level since forming in 1966, and with an attendance buoyed by kids-for-a-quid and a nascent “Ultras” group, the committee have concerns. “It costs near on £100,000 a year to run a club at this level,” says vice-chairman Chris Woolfall. “At some games, after basic operational costs are covered, we actually lose money.”
It explains why Woolfall spends a lot of his time retrieving wayward clearances from the adjacent River Irwell. At £30 a ball, it’s like panning for gold. The hazard is exacerbated by neighbouring trees. “I once spent 20 minutes stuck up there collecting a goal kick,” he recalls, signalling towards the Riverside Stadium’s dense arboreal perimeter.
The faintly surreal image of a middle-aged club official patrolling the terraces with a fishing net is symptomatic of a more deep-rooted problem. Below the largely professional National League National Division, the non-League pyramid is sustained by an overstretched and ageing volunteer workforce. Without them, it would collapse overnight.
While the focus on non-League football has intensified – if only as a palliative for the game’s increasing avarice – there are concerns where the next generation of helpers will come from. “There are too many jobs for the number of volunteers we have, so people end up multi-tasking,” Woolfall says. “Sometimes it’s very tough, especially when you have to take time out of work. But I love football and the sense of providing something important for the local community. It worries me who will look after the club when we are gone.”
The future of these institutions should be of concern to all fans. Clubs with two- and three-figure gates may seem insignificant, but they are an important part of the game’s ecosystem. Semi-professional and amateur football is cheap, accessible and welcoming. It provides an option for those unable or unwilling to pay excessive prices in the higher tiers and offers a source of pride, identity and opportunity to local people.
On a wider scale, grassroots set-ups continue to contribute to the overall development of the game. Of the England squad named for the Euro 2016 qualifier against Estonia tonight, Chris Smalling (Maidstone United) and Jamie Vardy (Stocksbridge Park Steels) have progressed from the non-League system, while Jack Butland and John Stones played their respective youth football for Clevedon United and Penistone Church.
England’s date with Estonia means there are no Premier League or Championship matches this weekend, an opportunity exploited by this season’s Non-League Day campaign. Now in its sixth consecutive year, the event provides a platform to celebrate affordable local football and the volunteers who work tirelessly to preserve it.
The ethos of the day is particularly well articulated by Anglian Combination outfit Bungay Town. Having received national acclaim for previous Non-League Day innovations – such as paying supporters 5p to turn up or handing out free punnets of mushrooms – the Suffolk side have taken a more grounded approach this time around: “At every club in the land at our level is a small group of people who mark out the pitch, wash the shirts, collect the subs and pump up the footballs. We think that is worth celebrating.”
The sentiments might have been written with someone like Jack Wolfenden in mind, Ramsbottom United’s 82-year-old stalwart who does everything from sell the programmes to sweep the changing rooms. Wolfenden has been a regular since 1979 and can be found at the ground every day doing the unsung jobs that keep a club ticking over.
With the Riverside Stadium empty and United anchored at the bottom of the table after a 3-1 defeat, Ramsbottom’s most senior of citizens appears, broom in hand, to summarise his involvement: “I’m here today. I’ll be here tomorrow. I’ll be here for as long as I can,” he says dutifully. This kind of devotion keeps the foundations of our game alive. Attending a non-League fixture this weekend goes one step towards recognising that. Mike Bayly