dulwich hamlet non-league football stadium spectators Dulwich Hamlet FC of the National League South

The whole reason for starting Groundhopper Soccer Guides was to help people enjoy watching English soccer. But, for most people, “watching English soccer” means watching the Premier League, particularly the “Big Six” clubs always at the top. We want to get folks beyond all that and into all the other leagues and cups of English soccer.

In this post, we invite you into the world of “non-league football” around London. And for that, we introduce the guru of the field, who literally writes the definitive guide on the subject and started what is nearly a national holiday to celebrate non-league football.

What is “Non-League Football”?

spectators watching game at bromley non-league football stadium

Bromley FC in South London

In English soccer, there are multiple leagues arranged vertically and connected by promotion and relegation. The Premier League is the top level, and the next three levels down are collectively called the English Football League. Below that — even though the word “league” appears often — is the world of “non-league football.”

Non-league is overwhelmingly an amateur world, where a few players may be paid but certainly have other jobs, and attendance averages in the hundreds — sometimes dozens. And it is vast: just in Steps 1-6 there are 48 leagues with around 20 clubs in each. Step 7 alone has at least that many leagues!

As an example, here is a trip that Groundhopper Paul took to fifth-tier Boreham Wood FC.

The London Football Guide and Non-League Day

Fortunately for us, there is a guide to football around London, including the non-league clubs. The London Football Guide was created by James Doe, who also started Non-League Day. The former is the go-to resource for soccer around the capitol; the latter, though not happening in 2020, is a national day out to celebrate the joys of non-league football.

Every week, James posts a summary and map of the games happening around London, including a bit about each club and why it would be a fun game to attend.

Let’s get to know James and his two wonderful projects. The following text is directly transcribed from our recent email interview with James.

london football guide logoWhen and why did you create The London Football Guide?

I launched TLFG in October 2011 about a year after Non-League Day. I’d seen how successful that had been and realised I actually knew a thing or two about football at all levels across London. I’d recently been made redundant from my content producer job at BBC Sport and saw this as a way of keeping my hand in and also trying something new – I’d edited and created blogs for sports stars and journalists but never written one myself.

I decided to write TLFG simply because it’s what I wanted to read and no-one else was doing it and still no-one has come close to copying it, probably because of the ridiculous amount of effort required to keep it going!

What is it about non-league football that appeals to you?

Non-league football is all about access. It’s often close to where people live, it’s cheap to get in, it’s cheap to buy food, drink and merchandise, you can stand or sit pretty much wherever you want for one flat price, you can move around during the game or change ends so you’re always behind the goal your team are attacking. You’re always pitchside or much closer to the action, you can talk to the players, coaches and officials before, during and after the game either in person or on social media. As a fan, it’s quite common to travel on the team bus to away matches. There’s a real sense that you’re involved with a football ‘club’. You also get the feeling that every pound spent makes a difference in keeping the club and hence the bedrock of the game alive.

london football guide non-league clubs map

A typical map of non-league games around London, from tlfg.co.uk.

I see that you call yourself a QPR fan who follows Harrow Borough. Is that split-loyalty common in England?

In the general football-watching population maybe not but at non-league grounds I think it’s fair to say that if you walked round and surveyed everyone, most would cite a preference for a higher division club although they might be a second preference behind a non-league one.

At Harrow, most of the people I know all support or follow other local clubs like QPR, Brentford and Fulham but I know of others who support all the other big London clubs too.

I guess if you’re in a non-league ground in the first place, then you’re kind of open to exploring the wide and wonderful world of football and aren’t blindly partisan to the affairs of only one club which many are – something I find really hard to get my head round.

non league day logo

Non League Day Logo from 2019

What is Non-League Day? How has it grown since you started it?

In essence NLD is a national marketing event to promote non-league football. It is always held during an international break when the big clubs all have the week off. As a result, thousands of fans are left without a club game to go to and the sports media also have way less to cover so we try to lure some of those fans to non-league games instead with the help of the media who have very little else to do – in theory, everyone’s a winner!

I initially started it in 2010 as a Facebook event among friends after seeing that quite a few clubs were struggling after the financial crisis of 2008. I thought maybe a few football-loving friends and colleagues might join me at a match or go somewhere else locally but it grew virally very quickly and within six weeks of launching, the first national Non-League Day took place.

It was pretty staggering the speed with which it grew with volunteers coming on board around the country, who I never met, websites hastily built and media strategies put together. With no budget, we cobbled a campaign together and crowds were calculated to have gone up by 12% after the first event.

Since then, we’ve steadily grown the event and now have the support of the Premier League, many of its member clubs and many EFL clubs too.

We work with anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out who select a number of featured games to promote their message – something which has become quite sought after by clubs and we have also raised thousands of pounds for men’s health charity Prostate Cancer UK with clubs and fans holding numerous fundraising events on the day.

The latest development has seen the creation of sister events in other countries. After meetings with our colleagues in Paris and Berlin, a European Day of Amateur Football was all set to launch this year but Covid-19 sadly saw it postponed. By the time next year comes round, the event looked to be well on course for landing a sizeable chunk of EU funding not that we’ll be eligible for any of it here!

spectators at non-league football stadium watching game

Pregame warmups at Dulwich Hamlet.

Speaking to Americans in particular, why do you recommend non-league football?

Apart from the increased access, many people are unaware of how historically important some non-league clubs and grounds are. The oldest ground and oldest club in the world are both found in non-league at Hallam and Sheffield respectively – both are in northern England. In London, it’s the same with Cray Wanderers its oldest club and the Old Spotted Dog its oldest ground (shortly to be re-opened by Clapton CFC).

If anyone has English roots in a specific smaller town or village, then you might find you have a connection to a non-league club far more than you do to one of the big Premier League sides.

Lastly, if you’re prepared to spend £50 or more on a Premier League ticket, that kind of money at a non-league club will probably be enough to sponsor the match ball and get you access to the boardroom and a hospitality package!

If someone is visiting London for a Premier League Sunday game, and they have a Saturday free, what are one or two grounds you would recommend they look to for a proper day out?

The go-to clubs I always recommend are the most vibrant or historic ones. The club that has grown the quickest in recent years by engaging its local community is Dulwich Hamlet. They play in the sixth tier National League South, often get sell-out crowds and are incredibly inclusive and welcoming. They are one of the more centrally located non-league clubs so are relatively easy to get to if you’re in a major London hotel.

Clapton CFC play way down in the 11th tier but have been known to exceed 1,000 supporters for a big game. Again, their supporters are among the most passionate around with flags, banners and even the odd prohibited flare or smokebomb. However, they are overtly politically left-wing/socialist and that might not be to everyone’s taste. The vibe at Dulwich is similar with community at its heart but more left of centre than outright socialist.

As I’ve also mentioned, Cray Wanderers are good to watch from an historical point of view. At the moment they groundshare at National League club Bromley so the stadium is of a high standard but it’s not their own, although a new one is underway.

Corinthian Casuals are another club on the up, certainly in terms of growing their fanbase and they have an historical connection to Brazil where members of their club gave rise to the creation of Sao Paulo giants Corinthians. The club played a friendly against them in South America a few years ago and the links between them are strong.

If you’re a Spurs fan, think about giving Haringey Borough a visit. They play on White Hart Lane itself and you can often catch a game there at 3pm and then walk to the THS for a 530pm kick-off.

There are around 100 non-league clubs in the wider London area so there are literally loads to choose from.

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