Scott McNiven is, by his own admission, hard to live with when he isn’t winning. The manager of Hyde, the Conference Premier’s bottom club by a mile, can barely remember what victory feels like. Twenty-six league games have brought no wins and just three points. The New Year opened with an unwanted record beckoning: no team in Conference history, going back to 1979, has gone through a whole season without a league win. McNiven’s wife Adele is enduring a lot of gloomy weekends. “She’s very understanding, especially as I don’t really speak to her on Saturday evenings now,” he says. “I’m not in the best mood for conversation after a defeat.”
That club is Corinthian-Casuals. Formed in 1939 following the merger of two English amateur sides, they are the highest-ranked amateur team in the English pyramid, playing four levels below the Football League.
It had to happen eventually. After seeing their club score 38 goals in eight home league matches while conceding just one, Guernsey FC fans approached Footes Lane on January 21 with confidence. They did not know much about Eversley. But then, the green and white-clad followers of this island club do not really know much about of their Combined Counties League (CCL) Division One opponents.
Sitting below the Conference, the lowest national league, and above the regional feeder leagues, the 44 clubs of Blue Square Bet North and South endure an annual ritual of reorganisation. Location is everything. The 22 northernmost clubs form one division, the 22 southernmost make up the other. The national map involved identifies a line of “border counties”, cutting a swathe across the map from Pembrokeshire to Norfolk, and taking in middle-England heartlands such as Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
The official statement to announce the formation of Hayes & Yeading United FC in 2007 asserted that the two major clubs in the west London suburb of Hayes would "join forces, integrate resources and bring together a community, creating a new super-club on the non-League scene". A key part of this ambitious plan was to sell Hayes FC's stadium and land on Church Road, and use the funds raised to redevelop Yeading's council-owned ground to create a multi-purpose facility that meets Conference grading regulations, while also generating extra income from renting out all-weather, floodlit pitches to the local community.
It was a midweek trip to Northern League side Ryton that sparked my curiosity. With rain threatening in the Tyne Valley, I looked for cover – and the nearest provided made my night. Ryton's ground contains seven former bus shelters, not quite the same height, complete with different route numbers still stuck on each. In non-League, strict ground-grading rules tend to require more seats and covered standing areas than average attendances. So recycling offers a cheaper way to satisfy the formidable ground grading committees.
Whether it is due to liquidation or upgrading, old stadiums offer rich pickings. One of the saddest sights of recent years has been that of Scarborough FC's Seamer Road Athletic Ground (known as the McCain Stadium until the company removed every trace of their name the day the club folded). Demolition is finally being mooted for the "Theatre of Chips" after four years of neglect left it open to fires, squatting, vandalism and the activities of scrap metal entrepreneurs and bottle diggers.
Some parts of the stadium now furnish other non-League grounds. Wearside Leaguers Jarrow FC took the goalposts and nets. Ironically, Scarborough Town hit these nine times in two visits in 2009-10 as one of Scarborough's two new clubs won the championship. Fans of the town's other team, Scarborough Athletic, were also quickly reunited with a part of their old stadium as fellow Northern Counties East League (NCEL) side Nostell Miners Welfare offered a new lease of life to some turnstiles and 150 seats. Fellow NCEL side, the brilliantly named Askern Villa, and the North West Counties' Runcorn Town also took 100 seats a piece.
On the first day of the season 15 years ago, those seats saw Boro defeat Cambridge United 1-0 in front of over 2,000. This season, the combined attendance at those three grounds probably won't reach half that. This recycling is nothing new for Scarborians however. In 1969 they donated their floodlights to Tamworth when about to erect new ones. The latter's Lamb Ground still boasts them today. Furthermore, those floodlights were already recycled – Boro had purchased the set from Hull City's Boothferry Park.
The football hand-me-down chain saw Roker Park seats head north to Berwick Rangers and south to Doncaster Rovers. Then, when Doncaster's Belle Vue closed, Blyth Spartans saved the turnstiles, Sheffield FC took the floodlights and Retford United found themselves with two (not so) new dugouts, and some of the ex-Roker Park seats made a second move with them. Leicester City's former home Filbert Street provided Alfreton Town with more seats, as it did with 700 more for Peterborough United – who also took 300 from Millwall's Den, while Godalming Town acquired the turnstiles.
Bangor City in the League of Wales added 1,000 seats from Ninian Park to their Farrar Road ground just 12 months ago, a move which allowed them to meet licensing criteria. They even got a mention and appeal through the BBC website for volunteers to help load seating onto transport from Cardiff to North Wales. With Bangor due to move in 2012-13, those seats may see a third new home in less than five years.
Devon village side Bickleigh's ground is as picturesque as it comes – set among rolling hills with a changing rooms/pavilion complete with clock and a thatched-roof pub behind one of the goals. The club have recently installed their first seats – from Somerset CCC. Finally, there is Farnborough FC. The turnstiles previously saw service at Stamford Bridge, 1,100 seats are from Wembley conference centre (with a further 700 from Ascot Racecourse), the scoreboard used to keep count at the Britannia Stadium and, to cap it off, the floodlights are ex-Highfield Road of Coventry. Oh, and the club agreed to buy a 3,000-seat stand from Darlington's old Feethams ground and now just needs to move it the 225 miles down the country before reassembling it.
At the moment it is said that the used car market is booming while the new car one is slowing. The same can be said in non-League. Hand me downs are the way forward – add in some local voluntary labour and you've got yourself a bargain.
From WSC 296 October 2011
Andy Brassell looks at a confusing and controversial TV deal for the Conference
It normally takes comedians or cover bands to pack out the bars at AFC Wimbledon and Kingstonian's Kingsmeadow stadium on a night without a home game. But on a cold Friday evening in January, a few hundred were crammed in to watch live football. Wimbledon were playing at Gateshead and such is the relative obscurity of Premier Sports, the TV rights holder for the Football Conference from this season, that fans squeezed into the hostelries behind KM's main stand to watch the transmission.
Mike Whalley tells how after an unexpectedly slow start to club existence, AFC Liverpool are in it for the long haul
"We didn't really have an idea as to what we were letting ourselves in for," says AFC Liverpool chairman Chris Stirrup. "Everyone had seen what FC United had done. In that first season, we thought we would walk the league." Two-and-a-half years in, Merseyside's newest non-League club have learned to temper ambition with realism. They've had to, when their home gates in the North West Counties League First Division – the tenth level of the pyramid – are below 150. Considering the amount of publicity they generated on their formation in 2008, it's easy to wonder why they aren't doing better.
Chris Taylor explains that while FC United of Manchester's FA Cup exploits are exciting, news of a new ground is the best thing to happen to the club this season
My dad used to point at stars and tell me that they could have expired thousands of years ago, and yet we can still see them because of how far away they are. I can now tell him that the away end of the Withdean Stadium is so far away from the pitch, you see events roughly 70 minutes after the rest of the ground.
As any true football fan knows, even the sight of five ten-year-old kids playing three-and-in is enough to make you watch back over your shoulder as you walk across the park. So, as you can imagine, moving so close to a real football ground that an errant shot of Geoff Thomas proportions could end up in your back garden is the kind of thing that makes you divert the walk to the corner shop, just so you can admire the floodlights peeking up from behind the fence.