It’s important that we introduce kids to non-league football

Getting into the game early is vital for the future of footballNon-league football fan and talkSPORT presenter Tony Incenzo reflects on his grassroots journey.

Television coverage of our national game is great. But it is vitally important that young children growing up are fully aware of the fact that football is not just a TV show that focuses on the Premier League.

We need to make sure that kids get accustomed to watching their local teams playing live. Quite simply, our cash strapped Non-League clubs will need all the support they can get when vaccines finally defeat this terrible Coronavirus pandemic.

The key is to make local football as attractive as possible. Many clubs already achieve this very successfully with free or relatively cheap admission prices for youngsters.

The abiding aim is to create a succession of lifelong supporters who will subsequently provide long-term matchday revenue streams. I can draw on my personal experiences to prove that this policy definitely works.

Hooked from an early age

When I was a lad in the 1970s, I fell in love with the wonderful world of Non-League football at Hendon FC in the Isthmian League. Their famous old Claremont Road ground was only five minutes from our house.

Admission back then was just 5p for children. That fitted in very nicely with my measly pocket money and I started going to matches on a regular basis.

Looking back, the Non-League scene was great fun for a young lad like me. Although I had mixed adventures along the way.

There was one time as a teenager when I decided to travel further afield to watch an Isthmian League fixture Boreham Wood FC.

For some reason, my mum said I had to take my little brother with me. He would have been 10 years old at the time and he had no interest in football whatsoever.

Well, we got to Boreham Wood and I stood there watching the match. Now surrounding the pitch, there was a perimeter barrier and then a soft gravel path next to the touchline of the playing area.

Bizarrely, my brother decided to climb over the barrier and he sat down on the gravel. For reasons best known to him, he started digging a hole with his bare hands – digging through the gravel and then through the clay underneath.

After about half an hour, he had dug down three feet, four feet, maybe five feet and then he jumped into the hole and started trying to dig a tunnel across under the pitch itself.

No one noticed this until the linesman, who was running up and down that touchline, took a step back and almost fell right into the hole.

So the match was stopped. Two bemused Boreham Wood club officials came running over and shouted at my brother to get out of the hole. They proceeded to fill in the cavity using a couple of shovels.

After that, the football recommenced and my brother abruptly disappeared. So I thought I’d find him at the end of the match.

Anyway, there were about 200 people in attendance and we all unexpectedly started hearing this really loud but really bad football commentary on the game we were watching….

“Oh the bald bloke’s got the ball, the bald bloke’s got it, he’s got the ball and he’s fallen over – and the goalkeeper’s got it now and he’s useless too – and the referee hasn’t got a clue – and it’s still nil-nil here…”

So everyone in the crowd started looking around trying to work out where this appalling commentary was coming from. I suddenly thought: “Hang on, I recognise that voice.”

I looked up, and up and up… and I realised that my brother had clambered 50 feet to the top of a floodlight pylon. He was hanging there by one hand commentating on the game!

The next thing there was a public address announcement from over the tannoy:

“Would the small boy who’s climbed the floodlight please come back down to the ground.”

My brother finally descended at the final whistle and we made a very quick departure from the stadium.

Thankfully, floodlight pylons are definitely more inaccessible in the modern health and safety era so my brother’s misdemeanour could not be replicated these days.

Love of Non-League in adulthood

Bringing these reminiscences up to date, my most embarrassing moment as a football journalist came when I inadvertently caused a Non-League club to be fined £20.

It was back in September 2017 when I travelled up to Staffordshire to take in a Buildbase FA Vase tie between Uttoxeter Town and Bardon Hill.

What I liked at Uttoxeter is that all children under 16 years of age were admitted free of charge to home matches. This worked really well and around 60 youngsters were present on the day of my visit amongst an overall attendance of 206.

In fact, the Uttoxeter Town ‘ultras’ took over one of the grandstands behind the goal and spent the whole game noisily supporting their team with an impressive array of songs. The football club actively encouraged these boys and girls to enjoy themselves on matchdays.

At the end of the game, I took a dramatic photo of the ultras as they held pyrotechnic flares in the air. I then posted this picture on my Twitter account in a genuine attempt to promote a community-based football club’s admirable policy of inviting young fans to attend their games.

Tony’s picture of the ‘ultras’

However, the following day Uttoxeter Town received a charge sheet from their local Staffordshire County Football Association. This referred to “alleged misconduct” as “members of the club used flares after the match”.

There was a £20 fine and – alarmingly for me – a copy of my tweet showing the Uttoxeter Town ultras was attached to the charge sheet.

I found the whole situation very, very embarrassing and I felt compelled to make a heartfelt apology to Uttoxeter Town Football Club.

My recollections from Hendon, Boreham Wood and Uttoxeter show how young fans can be initiated into the Non-League football family and therefore provide long-lasting benefits for local clubs.

I am a great example of this. I have now been going to Non-League matches on a regular basis for almost half a century. That is down to the fact that Hendon FC got me hooked at an early age.

Once you fall in love with the beautiful game at this level, you will become a paying spectator for life.

Read more from Tony and his passion for Non-League football in our Groundhopper Diary

Click here to be in the know on how we’re supporting non-league football, or follow @BuildbaseUK on Twitter for the latest news and competitions. 

Tony Incenzo is a reporter for talkSPORT Radio and Sky TV. You can follow Tony on Twitter at @TonyIncenzo