Non League Day: Why the Northern League is better than the Premier League

In the Northern League, supporters will do anything to get a good view of the action (See number 14).
In the Northern League, supporters will do anything to get a good view of the action (See number 14).

Fans of Premier League clubs often complain of falling out of love with the game they fell in love with as a child.

There are a multitude of reasons why that is the case, but it is possible for that passion to be rekindled.

You may not see Sergio Aguero in the Northern League (see number one), but the standard is still high.

You may not see Sergio Aguero in the Northern League (see number one), but the standard is still high.

The Northern League provides a cost-effective and often thrilling way to fall back in love with the beautiful game...

1. Cost

At most Premier League grounds, you’ll be lucky if you can buy a ticket for less than £30.

The standard of football in the Northern League might not be anywhere near the level of the top flight – you won’t find a Sergio Aguero, Wayne Rooney or John Terry here – but it’s far from poor, and with ticket prices around the £5 mark, it’s good value.

Wembley has hosted many Northern League clubs in recent years in FA Vase finals (see number three).

Wembley has hosted many Northern League clubs in recent years in FA Vase finals (see number three).

Added to that, the cost of food, drinks, programmes and merchandise mean you can enter a ground, support your team, drink until you’re merry and still have enough for your taxi fare home - the cost of all of that will probably work out cheaper than your average Premier League match ticket alone.

2. A sense of community

Fans of the likes of Newcastle United and Sunderland often goad opposition supporters with chants of ‘We support our local team’, but do they really?

Much of the joy has been sucked out of top-flight football with relentless marketing campaigns, soaring prices and players who seem to have had their passion for the game removed.

Julio Arca can now be seen strutting his stuff at South Shields (see number five).

Julio Arca can now be seen strutting his stuff at South Shields (see number five).

Supporters are often taken for granted, but a football fix can still be found at non-league level, and there’s no better place than the Northern League for that.

The sense of a community, too – the people of a town coming out to support their local club – also creates a family-friendly atmosphere which can help fans fall back in love with the game.

3. Wembley

Let’s face it, fans of the North East’s two Premier League clubs shouldn’t expect to see their team at Wembley any time soon.

Squad numbers like Mario Balotelli's 45 are not seen in the Northern League (see number seven).

Squad numbers like Mario Balotelli's 45 are not seen in the Northern League (see number seven).

Sunderland may have reached the national stadium in 2014 for the League Cup final, but prior to that, neither they or Newcastle had appeared in a major final there since 1999.

That hope, though, is always there, with the likes of Wigan, Portsmouth and Stoke all having reached an FA Cup final in recent years.

Turning your back on the Premier League wouldn’t necessarily mean turning your back on the dream of watching your team walk out at Wembley, though, as the FA Vase presents a tantalising opportunity for Northern League clubs.

Over the last seven years, eight Northern League sides have reached an FA Vase final - including one all-Northern League final - and six have returned to the North East with the trophy.

4. Identify with the players

Ever wanted to sit down with your favourite player after a match, have a drink with them and talk with them about what’s just happened on the pitch?

The Northern League: A Jim White-free zone (see number eight).

The Northern League: A Jim White-free zone (see number eight).

Well in the Northern League, you can. Players retire to the clubhouse after a game, mingling with supporters and ‘refuelling’ at the bar.

For those who feel a disconnect with professional players, that barrier is eroded at Northern League level.

These players really are just like you or I.

5. A chance to see former stars

A number of former professional stars have underlined their love for the game by appearing in the Northern League.

Incredibly, you can now see Julio Arca strutting his stuff in a South Shields shirt after the former Sunderland and Middlesbrough star joined the ambitious club last month.

In the past, the likes of Brian Clough (Billingham Synthonia), Chris Waddle (Tow Law Town), Bernie Slaven (Billingham Synthonia) and Gary Pallister (Billingham Town) have all appeared in the Northern League.

Remember Paul Robinson, the striker Ruud Gullit selected ahead of Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson for the rain-hit Tyne-Wear derby of 1999? He wound down his career in the Northern League with Consett, Whitley Bay, Jarrow Roofing, Newton Aycliffe and South Shields.

Head along to a Northern League ground and, you never know, you might just see some familiar faces.

6. No moves for TV

The disregard for supporters at Premier League level has never been greater than it is today.

A Newcastle fan who fancies a trip to the league game at Bournemouth in November will have to set off at a ridiclous time, courtesy of the 12.45pm kick-off imposed by a broadcaster.

Want to watch Sunderland at Crystal Palace later in the same month? Better forget about going to work then, seeing as it’s an 8pm kick-off on a Monday.

In the Northern League, you won’t get such ludicriousy. Saturday games kick off at 3pm, and midweek fixtures are at 7.30pm or 7.45pm. Simple.

7. Squad numbers

Do you long for the days when players strode out onto the pitch wearing the squad numbers 1-11?

In the Premier League now, a top striker is as likely to wear 45 as he is 9.

Shirt number traditions are being worn away while players increasingly try to show their individuality by trying their best to stand out.

In the Northern League, though, you won’t find a 24, 33 or 45. The starting line-up wears 1-11 (with no names on the back of the shirts, of course), and the substitutes (of which there are five), wear 12 to 16, unless a club opts out of using ‘unlucky’ 13, in which case they’ll be able to use the number 17. Again, simple.

8. Escape the deadline day madness

Sure, Northern League clubs can emulate top flight sides to a lesser extent with expensive (for that level) moves.

But you won’t catch roving reporters standing in a bear pit outside Northern League grounds twice a year, surrounded by a posse of excitable teenagers desperate to find out whether a loan move for Benjani has been pushed over the line.

Nope, there’s no Jim White at this level. And the world is a better place for it.

9. Shorter away trips

Long away trips for Premier League supporters can be enjoyable, character-building experiences.

However, when you’ve inevitably just seen your team walloped yet again in London after a journey of great expense, there comes a point when patience begins to wear thin.

In the Northern League, though, you can on most occasions travel back from an away match and still make it home in time for The X Factor/Strictly Come Dancing (delete where applicable). Guilty pleasures and all that.

10. Stand where you want

There’s no segregation at Northern League level, so you won’t find a line of stewards, followed by police, separating you from the opposition supporters.

Hardly surprisingly, trouble is extremely rare. Fans mingle together, often enjoy a good laugh and support their team. Not for the first time, simple.

You can congregate with your fellow supporters behind the goal your team is attacking in the first half, if you so wish, and then move to the other end of the ground after half-time.

There’s no seat numbers or restrictions on where you can sit/stand here. Go where you want. Be treated like an adult.

11. Picturesque grounds

Some of the flatpack new stadiums in the Premier League may look beautiful, but are they inspiring? Do they have a sense of meaning, history?

Head to the Northern League if you want to find stadiums with character and soul.

Some of the grounds may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but their locations can provide some superb views.

Tow Law Town, Brandon United and Esh Winning are just three of the must-visit grounds.

12. Good quality

Some clubs - including South Shields - have enjoyed a huge surge in support this season, and many of those who have passed through the gates have commented on how surprised they have been at the quality of football on show.

Some have expected to be faced with something akin to Sunday League standard, with players often rolling up a matter of minutes before a match and then doing their best to plod along for the following 90 minutes.

However, the same intricacies of football can be found at Northern League level, when teams often have detailed tactical plans and methods to find success.

It may be on a smaller scale, but the standard of football in the Northern League is certainly not to be sniffed at.

13. Unpredictability

As with any sporting competition, a general hierarchy is assumed during the off-season, when favourites emerge.

Often, teams in the Northern League live up to the billing, but the two divisions are always extremely competitive and, mostly, unpredictable.

Chester-le-Street currently sit top of Division Two having been tipped by few during the summer, while Brandon United have picked up as many points as they did in the whole of last season.

There should be a level of unpredictability in any competition, and in the Northern League, you certainly have that.

14. Incidents like this

For some people, even £5 is too much for the privilege of watching a game of football – as our main picture (taken at a friendly between South Shields and Newton Aycliffe in the summer) proves.

The temptation of watching the game was still too much for him, though, so he scaled a lorry outside the ground to get the perfect view.

Would you see things like that in the Premier League? Thought not.

15. Non-league Day

If you’re still reading, and you’re still not convinced to turn your back on the Premier League, fair enough.

For many, following the likes of Newcastle or Sunderland is a ritual which cannot be broken, however much they are taken for granted and the clubs continue to falter.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still support your local club too, though.

Saturday, 10 October is non-league day, when all football supporters are encouraged to back their local team during the international break.

An inexpensive, enjoyable day is sure to be had, so get yourself along and see what it’s all about, even if just for one week. You never know, you might just find yourself coming back for more.

Need a helping hand? Here are some of the fixtures you could take in:

South Shields vs Ryton and Crawcrook Albion

Billingham Town vs Hebburn Town

Morpeth Town vs Jarrow Roofing

Ashington vs Shildon

North Shields vs Dunston UTS

Easington Colliery vs Chester-le-Street Town

Ryhope CW vs Heaton Stannington

Washington vs Norton and Stockton Ancients

Durham City vs Newton Aycliffe

Whitley Bay vs Chorley (FA Cup)