Following Non-League: A Few Of My Most Memorable Moments
Updated: Jan 14
I *love* non-league football. I just love it. The most memorable game I can remember being at was a non-league game. I've seen countless players who now ply their trade at much higher levels turn out for a midweek game in the Conference (and below). The same is true for some referees as well. The stadiums - if you can call some of them that - stick in your mind for their uniqueness.
It's a wonderful breeding ground for young players looking to rise up the ranks, and although the quality of football you're going to get is often something of a lottery, a non-league game, and in particular an away day, can be just as much fun as a game in the more well-known leagues. I'm a big fan of Non-League Day, the initiative launched a few years ago to entice fans of bigger clubs down to their nearest non-league game when their usual team aren't playing, and I wanted to share some of my favourite experiences of following non-league to illustrate its (often quite well-hidden, but always present) charm.
It feels especially pertinent to write a post extolling the virtues of non-league, given the situation many smaller clubs, who rely on income from fans coming through the gates on matchdays, now face. I should point out, I am absolutely not criticising this decision for one second; if the government's modelling says it is the right thing to do, it must be done, but it will without doubt hurt lower-league clubs. That's why I wanted to reminisce a little bit in the hope that someone who hasn't considered going to a non-league game before might be prompted to try it once fans are allowed back.
I'll start with my absolute favourite match I've ever seen live, ever. This was a cold March night in Halifax; I was stood behind the goal in the south stand of the Shay, aged about 11 or 12. Starting up front for Halifax Town was a 24-year-old by the name of Jamie Vardy, and a 22-year-old named Lee Gregory. See what I mean about a breeding ground for young players?
Anyway, tonight's opponents in this Northern Premier League clash, step seven on the English football pyramid, were Chasetown. The Shaymen were already champions-elect, but the Staffordshire side were in the top half and by no means a pushover. Somewhat oddly, for my favourite match ever, I don't actually remember much of the first 70 minutes. I know, it sounds strange, but stick with me, because the final 20 minutes were where it got really good.
Chasetown took the lead at the far end with 20 minutes remaining. Heads dropped. Was this to be a rare home defeat for Halifax? Not if Vardy had anything to do with it. Just over ten minutes after the visitors had taken the lead, he netted the equaliser right in front of us. 1-1. Was there time for a winner?
Yes, there was! He fired another one in shortly afterwards. 88 minutes of the 90 had elapsed and the Shaymen were in front, two goals to one. Would that lead last?
No. Remarkably, as the clock ticked into added time, Chasetown levelled, and it was two apiece, with minimal time remaining. That was it, surely? Unless... wait.
Here we go. Cross comes in... JAMIE VARDY! 90+5 minutes, Vardy completes his hat trick and makes it 3-2. Five goals crammed in to the last 20 minutes, including two in injury time. How much more dramatic can you make a football game? I can still picture Vardy racing away to the corner flag to celebrate, arms flailing wildly, in pure joy. That reverberated around the stadium too. Nothing, in terms of the league, rested on this game, and yet, as Vardy blasted in his hat trick, everything rested on it. Town had defeated Ossett United 8-1 just a few weeks prior, but as a friend of my Dad's put it as we were leaving the ground that night, "that feels better than Ossett". For the sheer drama, that's why that game remains my favourite.
Fleetwood Town would come in for Vardy around five months after that game, and the rest is history. For obvious reasons, my Dad and I have been keenly following Vardy's career, along with, I'm sure, many hundreds of other Halifax fans, ever since. To be honest, though, my favourite stat was created only 48 hours ago, told to me by one of my new flatmates at university.
There are now only two players to score hat tricks against teams managed by Pep Guardiola.
Jamie Vardy and Lionel Messi.
I really mean it when I say keep your eye on those players who seem a cut above if you go and see a non-league match. If nothing else, the feeling of 'I saw him first' is special. Trying to remain modest, I have that feeling about a surprising number of players who've donned the blue and white of Halifax Town. Vardy (Leicester) and Gregory (Millwall & Stoke City) I've mentioned, but I've also seen Scott Hogan (Aston Villa, Birmingham, Brentford, Sheffield United), David Brooks (Sheffield United, Bournemouth), Matty Pearson (Accrington, Barnsley, Luton), Simon Eastwood (Portsmouth, Blackburn, Oxford), and Dan Gardner (Chesterfield, Oldham, Wigan), to name but a few. On the opposition side, there may well be many that I don't remember, but two that I do are Andre Gray (Brentford, Burnley, Watford) who visited the Shay with Luton when they were still in the Conference, and Dwight Gayle (Peterborough, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Newcastle), who played for Bishop's Stortford.
Referees are the same; many budding officials start in the lower leagues with hopes of one day making it to the big time. Obviously fewer referees stick in my mind, but I do know for sure that I've seen Chris Kavanagh, who was in charge of the madcap Brighton v Manchester United match on Saturday, officiate at the Shay. I'm sure they're probably glad of the better facilities as they graduate their way up to the top level; the Shay has had a new main stand built in the last 15 years so I'm pleased to report the facilities there are quite nice, but some stands that I've watched a match from... well, let's just say, we'll start with building a roof, and take it from there.
One roof-less ground that I do remember going to, far more recently, was Barrow on Easter Monday around four years ago. This was a lot less of a pleasant experience than the Chasetown game; Halifax, in an ultimately unsuccessful relegation fight, were beaten 4-1 by a team who would go on to be promoted to the Football League this year. My Dad still thinks I'm pathetic for going on about this game, and he's probably right, it wasn't that bad, but it wasn't nice at the time. It was a miserable day in Cumbria, cold and raining, and here I was, stood on an uncovered terrace watching Halifax get hammered. I think the reason my Dad thinks I'm pathetic is because he's become hardened to situations like that. They're all too familiar for him.
Situations like that are what make the good bits so good, though, and there are plenty of those good bits I can think of. I've been a mascot at Halifax four times, including once when the game was on TV, in an FA Cup first-round match at home to Charlton, who were at the top of League One at the time. That was a brilliant day, not least because of the fact I got my replica shirt I was wearing that day signed by not only all the Halifax players, but also the whole Charlton squad too thanks to a chance encounter with an employee of the Addicks as we were leaving the ground.
I've been on some great away days, too. We've paid visits to the likes of Hucknall, Solihull, York, Cambridge, Milton Keynes, and Morecambe. Morecambe's Christie Park, incidentally, is the only ground I've ever visited that no longer exists. I was only little for the trip to York, though, so I don't remember exact details, but I do remember that Halifax won, and being taught how to wave goodbye to the home fans who were flocking out early!
My absolute favourite moment watching non-league, though, has to be visiting Wembley to watch the FA Trophy final in 2016. There were two games in one that day; the powers that be had combined the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals into one event, and christened it Non-League Finals Day. The latter was the first match of the day, which saw phoenix club Hereford FC take on Morpeth Town. You'll see a picture I took of the 20,000 Hereford fans attached to this post, but they went home disappointed, as Morpeth came back from conceding an early goal to win 4-1, including an equaliser scored by a 45-year-old centre back, at the time the oldest player to score at the new Wembley. I'm not sure if that record still stands, but it will have taken some beating if it doesn't. More non-league magic.
To the main event, though, and this was Halifax Town on their first visit to Wembley in 105 years as a football club, against Grimsby Town, on their second visit in a week. 10,000 travelling Shaymen took their seats opposite a similar number from the Mariners. One perk of Non-League Finals Day not being a sell-out event was the fact that Club Wembley seats were far more reasonably priced than usual, so we enjoyed a little more luxury as we watched the biggest game in Halifax's history.
Half time arrived, with the game still goalless. The enjoyment of the day was steadily starting to be replaced with suspense. The teams were effectively two divisions apart; already-relegated Halifax had gone toe-to-toe with their already-promoted opponents, and despite the lack of any goalmouth action, maybe, just maybe, there was a sense of something in the air.
48 minutes. The Shaymen come forward. Grimsby keeper James McKeown dives out to block a low cross. The ball bobbles around in the area, as black and white shirts try to hack it clear. One tries to get it out, get it away from the edge of the area.
Fatal mistake. It falls to Scott McManus 20 yards out. He gets the shot away. It's flying, arching, curling, and into the net it goes!
ONE NIL SHAYMEN! Our end of Wembley exploded.
I don't really remember much else after that, to be honest! I do remember willing the clock down, of course, hoping every Grimsby attack would fail. It did. They couldn't find a reply.
The final whistle went. Halifax Town had done it.
Silverware at Wembley. Who doesn't put that at the top of their list of footballing moments?
That is how truly brilliant non-league football can be. If you want to see McManus's goal, take a look here: https://twitter.com/nonleaguepaper/status/915967870810689536.
So in summary, yes, I can't encourage you enough to go and watch a non-league game as soon as fans are allowed back. These clubs will need your support, and you never know - you might leave at full time having just watched the next Jamie Vardy. Failing that, you might find a new club to love, and maybe one day you'll get to walk down Wembley Way to see them too.