Planning a blog post on my recent non-league ground-hopping exploits, but thought I’d first write something on how I got into watching non-league football. Then I remembered that I wrote an article back in September 2010 for the Watford Fanzine Clap Your Hands Stamp Your Feet (CYHSYF), which was also published in the Bath City programme a couple of weeks later, and it quite nicely summarised how I started this love affair with non-league football.

It should be noted that I was quite angry towards the top of English football and in particular the god-awful England team at the time.  Although this anger has dampened slightly in the last 18 months, this has nothing to do with top flight which is still as greedy and disgusting as ever, rather the blood, sweat and tears of the bottom of the pyramid have made me realise why I love the game, and the top of the game has benefited from the hard work at the bottom, and I have softened slightly.

This article was meant to be of interest to Watford fans because it had a Where Are They Now aspect outlining the former Watford players that had visited Bath City the previous season. I also wanted to push the fantastic National Non-League Day which was in it’s début year and is gaining followers all the time, but it was of course primarily, fanzine padding.  In hindsight, I think it might have came across as a bit Anti-Watford. If you read it then and thought that, I apologise this was not my intention. Anyway, to the article. Typos are as they appeared then. Hyperlinks are new, obviously….

“Twelve years ago, as a teenager, I cut my literary teeth penning a few articles for CYHSYF.  If you remember them, then you’ll not be surprised to learn that this was not only the beginning of my writing career, but also the end of it.  However, I hope that my lack of talent was more than made up for by my enthusiasm; at this time in my life I ate and slept Watford FC.  I had a pre-school paper round, and a post-school warehouse job, so that I had enough money (and importantly free Saturday’s afternoons) to follow the Horns across the country.  In 1999, when I should have been studying hard for my A-Levels I completed a life long ambition of attending a complete season of games, home and away, I met God who told me we’d go up, I saw us win at Wembley dyeing my hair yellow for the occasion and nearly got myself suspended from school for bunking off with a friend to drive up to St. Andrews for the play off semi-final.

Then all of a sudden it was gone.  I packed up my bags and headed for Bristol to study at University, where the distraction of football was replaced by the distraction of cheap beer and girls.  Suddenly, physical distance and a pitiful student loan meant I was restricted to a handful of games; in our first Premiership season.  It was heartbreaking, but I wore my shirt (signed by God) with pride around campus and watched MotD each Saturday night with a near religious devotion.  However, relegation followed and less press coverage of Watford cut me off a little further.  I went on to study for a postgraduate degree in 2003 and by the time I’d graduated and moved to Bath for my “settled, grown-up” life in 2006, I’d only been to a dozen Watford games in three years.

Things were different; my life had changed in a way I didn’t think would be possible ten years previously.  Watford Football Club was no longer my life.  If you’re 18 and reading this now, I hate to tell you, but it will almost certainly happen to you too.  Watford was still the first club I looked for in the results, but on occasions it was Sunday afternoon or even Monday morning before I checked!  Obviously living away from Watford had been the primary reason for my waning love, but I think football had changed, and to be honest I’d stopped loving football.  Even England games weren’t doing it for me.  I don’t know if it was the money, both that charged to fans, and that paid to players; the blanket over-the-top media coverage; or my increased cynicism, but football just wasn’t doing it for me.

The Popular Side at Bath City

Then one Saturday afternoon in August 2008, I was listening to the radio, and suddenly felt all nostalgic for the start of the football season.  I felt there was something missing from my life.  Why wasn’t I travelling across the country to go and see the football?  I couldn’t afford to see Watford, but thought I’d walk across the city to Twerton Park and see my local team in action.  I think that first afternoon I wasn’t even sure who was playing – Team “Tax” Bath (may they rot in hell1) were at this time tenants at their rivals Bath City, so I knew there would be a game of some sort on – or indeed which division football I would be watching.  On that sunny afternoon I was one of a crowd of 623 who witnessed Bath City lose 0-4 at home to Welling United in the Blue Square South.  With the exception of the dozen or so Welling fans I must have been the only person to walk away from Twerton Park with a smile on my face.  I was in love again; maybe not with Bath City.  Not yet anyway.  But certainly in love with football again; this was proper football.  No-one in the stadium that day, not one of the players, coaches, officials, fans, stewards or kiosk attendants was there for the money.  They were all there because they love football, and their enthusiasm was infectious.

And I returned a couple of weeks later, and again a month after that, gradually I became hooked.  Ok, the football is not pretty, but is of a surprisingly high standard – the players are very fit and largely try to play a passing game – but there can be some highly comical defending.  But there are some other amazing benefits of watching football at this level.  The full match-day experience will leave you with change from £20 in your pocket; you can have a pint (in a pint glass) in the clubhouse before the game, and if you return for a pint after the game then you will be mingling with the players as they arrive from the changing rooms to refuel with chicken wings, chips and pints of coke.  At half time the supporter’s club tea-bar sells a coffee and a mars bar for £1, for both, not each.  You can change ends at half time so you are always standing behind the goal your team are attacking, oh and you can stand – an absolute joy, after years of watching football in all-seater stadia.

Bath City Celebrate Their Play Off Win

In that first season, Bath had a mediocre season, falling away in the final third of the season and finishing 9th.  However last season, when I now was attending the majority of home games (and even two away games) they looked to be falling away again, only to come good in the end, make the play-offs and get promoted to the top flight of non-league football.  “We are Premier League” we ironically sang as we celebrated on the pitch following the defeat of Woking 1-0 in the play-off final.  Anyway, I digress, I should bring this back to some relevance to a Watford fanzine, let me lead you through some of the familiar faces to you, that have visited Twerton Park over the last twelve months:

The first ex-horn to face the Romans was Jamie Hand who played for Chelmsford on the opening day of the season.  In a bizarre game Chelmsford were 4-0 up inside half an hour, with on-loan Bath keeper Will Puddy having a nightmare debut; however he saved a penalty to stop Chelmsford going 5-0 up, before a remarkable fightback saw the Bath nearly snatch a point with the game finishing 4-3.  Jamie played the first ten Chelmsford games of the season before moving on to eventual playoff finalists Woking.  He would not have such a happy time against Bath a second time, being on the end of a 5-0 trashing, the first of 3 defeats Woking would suffer at the hands of Bath.  Jamie would not play in the other two, moving on to Zamaretto Premier League side Hemel Hempstead Town. 

A week after the visit of Woking, Dean Holdsworth brought his high-flying Newport County side to Twerton Park.  Even at this early stage of the season Newport were miles clear, and would go on to win the league at a canter with 103 points, so a 1-1 draw in a hard-fought local aggro match was an excellent point.  Newport are a club on the rise, for those who don’t remember, they are a former league club and reached the quarter-final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 19812 (Qualifying through the Welsh Cup).  They went bust in 1989, and have since been rebuilding the club in a process which has often been turbulent – 3 seasons had to be played in Gloucestershire to avoid being coerced into the Welsh league by the Welsh FA.  Having secured promotion, Holdsworth will this season face his brother David, who is manager of Conference National side Mansfield, surely the first time twin brothers have faced each other as opposing managers. 

Three more Watford legends would bring their sides to Twerton Park throughout the season; Andy Hessenthaler brought his fancied Dover side to Bath in February and went away with a point, but his side would eventually miss out on the playoffs and Hessenthaler would move back to GillinghamAlan Devonshire is another who is making a name for himself in non-league management, he has guided Hampton & Richmond to two promotions and finished the 2008-09 season in the Conference South playoffs.  Hampton had started the 09-10 season well, but were unable to repeat their success, eventually finishing 14th, despite taking maximum points over the season from Bath City.  Finally, Barry Ashby is assistant manager at Welling United, where I went on my first Bath City away game, and saw my adopted team take all the points winning 2-0 at Park View Road.  The season run-in also saw the appearance of former Watford trainee Elliott Godfrey at Twerton Park in a Staines shirt.  On loan from AFC Wimbledon he was unable to get on the scoresheet as Bath got the 3 points which got them into the playoff places with 3 games to go.  They wouldn’t look back from there, avenging their opening day defeat by beating Chelmsford across two legs in the semi final and beating Woking for the third time during the season in front of 4800 fans at Twerton Park in the final.

So next season Bath play at national level for the first time in 14 years, and will remain part-time (with an expanded squad of just 19 players) in a league which is increasingly full of full-time professional clubs.  Bath will have their work cut out to stay in the division against the relative spending power of the likes of Grimsby, York, Cambridge, Darlington and of course L*t*n, a game I look forward to immensely.  Bath’s place in the Conference South has been taken by Boreham Wood, promoted from the Ryman Premier playoffs despite a “fan” walking onto the pitch and assaulting a Kingstonian defender during the final.  Disgracefully the FA took no action against Boreham Wood and they take their place in the Conference South for the first time, alongside another local side St. Albans.

There are plenty of other non-league clubs in the local area and if you’re feeling a bit disconnected from our beautiful game, or are simply at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon, I can’t recommend highly enough taking in a non-league game.  You’ll be welcomed with open arms, you’ll not be charged a fortune to get in, and you’ll watch 22 players who dedicate their spare time to the beautiful game in exchange for less than most of us would spend on a weekend away following Watford.  Standing in a traditional football ground you’ll remember what football is supposed to be about and be reminded what’s wrong with (and what’s right with) the top of the game.  And next Saturday 4th September, is national Non-League Day.  England are playing on the Friday night, no Championship or Premiership games, so you’ll have a free Saturday.  Don’t let the girlfriend take you shopping, head to your local non-league side.  Go and support football, you might be pleasantly surprised.  But if not next week, then whenever, they’ll still be there, because they love football.

1 Team Bath, the darlings of the BBC FA Cup coverage, due to nostalgic notions of bygone student teams were actually a bunch of cheats.  Funded by University cash, they were set up with the theoretically admirable aim of educating players who had been released by professional clubs, allowing them to play in the lower leagues with the possibility of being picked up and having a second crack at Professional football.  In reality they were paying large transfer fees (by non-league standards where any fee is almost unheard of) for experienced non-league players, and also paid large salaries by the standards of the league.  This was funded off attendances of around 100, though away fans often disputed these exaggerated figures.  In 2009 The football league, and the conference decided the funding model was not fair and announced Team Bath would not be allowed promotion to the league or conference national.  At which point the team folded.

2 Where one Gary Plumley played in goal in front of 18,000 baying Welshman, so let’s not put his piss-poor performance at Villa Park down to inexperience.

Photos openly “borrowed” from Yuffie_City, Bath City fan and fantastic football photographer.