Zipping up my boots, going back to grassroots
Roving reporter Peter Shaw checks out what the non-league scene in Hampshire has to offer, and why it’s an experience everybody should try!
Fancying a change from the usual Sobar Tuesday and the ensuing brutal hangover and regretful photos, I decided to take a trip up to Winchester, and more specifically The Denplan Ground.
The difference between non-league football and Premiership/Championship football is enormous, and the two are entirely different in every way.
A ticket to get into the round of 16 of the Russell-Cotes Cup, Winchester City FC vs AFC Totton, set me back the princely sum of £3. If I had wanted to watch Chelsea vs QPR in the Premier League it would have cost £50 for the cheapest seat in the family section. Scandalous to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong, I love league football as well. I spend way too much money following Southampton, and walking up to the stadium with thousands of fellow fans and joining in with a rocking St Marys is always a massive buzz.
But there’s something about the charm of grassroots football that always lures me back for more. You’ve got to love being able to have a chat to the opposition ‘keeper during the game and convincing him that at 5-0 down he might as well go on a FIFA-esque run from his own box to try and score. And it’s even better when he actually listens and has a go, only to almost concede after losing the ball trying an outrageous trick 10 yards outside his own box (Foodger, AFC Totton).
And even in the 9th tier of English football there are hidden gems and talent to be uncovered. Jamie White, for example, scored a double against Totton with a poachers header from a corner and a beautiful lob from the edge of the area to take his seasons tally to 44 goals in 26 league and cup games.
Unsurprising perhaps then that he has been scouted by a host of Championship, League One and League Two clubs, and trained with AFC Bournemouth over the Christmas period.
Along with White, Leigh Mills in the centre of defense is another player that you may be surprised to see playing at Winchester. Still only 24, Mills was England U16 captain, and earned himself a £700,000 move to Tottenham in 2004, before retiring in 2009 to become a PE teacher while playing part time for Winchester, his hometown club.
You simply cannot argue with a teamsheet that is written on a whiteboard and placed outside the club shop. Or the awkward moment when the floodlights fail with 15 minutes to go and the game is delayed while someone has to pop off to put 50p in the meter. Or when you see the linesman checking his phone during the game.
Another joy of grassroots, or most non-league football, is the lack of fan segregation and the generally more relaxed attitude. At Premier League games you see middle aged men with their kids yelling all sorts of obscenities and frothing at the mouth over a decision given the wrong way, or goading opposition fans across the police cordons, only to skulk away quietly at the final whistle. Fans lower down the football pyramid, however, seem to have a mutual respect for each other that they spend money and time supporting a team that has no realistic chance of hitting the big time.
Players play because they love the game, and that is the way it should be.
So next time you fancy an evening out, but are incredibly hung over and don’t fancy the hair of the dog treatment, pop along to your local side. There are loads to choose from and maybe you’ll be drawn in!
Final Score: Winchester City FC 5 – 0 AFC Totton