With top tiers English football games being more exciting, and arguably more accessible than most high-budget Hollywood blockbusters, there’s little mystery as to why attendance levels at grassroots matches have been dwindling.
Inspired by the lack of attention these games were receiving, James Doe embarked upon a social media campaign. Doe’s aim was to encourage people to support their local non-league teams during the second international break of the season when the Premier League and Championship sides do not play. Nine years on from this brainwave, this non-profit volunteer initiative, dubbed “Non-League Day”, is still running as strong as ever with people coming out to watch some of the estimated 40,000 semi-professional and amateur clubs from all four corners of the country.
After hearing the initiative through Twitter, I set about finding the nearest club to the University of Birmingham. The answer, I quickly found, was a local team with a very famous name – Cadbury Athletic FC.
Founded in Bournville in 1994, the club originally played at a pitch on the grounds of the Cadbury Factory. Despite having now moved to the Triplex Sports Association Ltd. Ground, their affiliation with the UK’s largest confectionery brand is still alive and well; the club’s home kit is “Cadbury” purple and is embellished with the company’s world-renowned logo. As one of the most well-known semi-professional clubs in the West Midlands, a few recognisable names have featured in their youth teams over the years with both Daniel Sturridge and Demari Gray having been on their books at some point.
On a particularly brisk autumn afternoon, I set out to experience my first taste of the Midland Football League by watching Cadbury Athletic’s clash with Coventry Copsewood. Travelling to the ground from Selly Oak is remarkably easy. With their ground being so close to King’s Norton train station, you can already hear the players carrying out their warm-up drills as you reach the station’s exit. After arriving at the ground and handing over my £5 to the waiting gentleman at the ticket office, I headed over to the stand and perched in a seat about five metres from the pitch – the type of view you certainly don’t get in the Premier League for a fiver.
What initially struck me was the wide array of people who had turned out in support of the team. From groups of older men to families with young children, it’s undeniable that the affordable nature of concessions tickets attracts those who would be less likely to attend top-tier games. I was also, perhaps in a slightly weird way, inspired by the impressive knowledge some of my fellow spectators had about the league and the players. I can honestly say that it opened my eyes to a fantastic footballing world that exists outside of the thickly insulated bubble of professional football that I’ve inhabited for my whole life.
By the time the teams came onto the pitch for their obligatory pre-match handshakes, the crowd had swelled to around 60 people who generated such an atmosphere that quelled the misguided prior notion I had that the game wouldn’t be taken that seriously.
If the early signs of the game were anything to go by, you would have thought that Coventry Copeswood were the home side. They were quick to assert their dominance by peppering the Cadbury Athletic defence with a series of hopeful through balls. Fortunately, Athletic’s defence held resolutely under this onslaught and acted quickly to disrupt their opponent’s passing channels to try and get themselves a foothold in the game.
The first clear chance of the game was against the run of play with the home side’s quick counter-attack playing one of their men in behind the Coventry defence, only to be thwarted by the linesman’s flag just as he steadied himself to shoot.
Spurred on by this chance, the Chocolate Men began to grow into the game and had a lot of joy pressing the Coventry defenders who looked to struggle under the constant harrying from their opponents. This strategy almost paid dividends when their striker disposed the opposing left-back and cut back a dangerous ball back from the by-line that ended up being cleared for a corner. Although this looked to be an opportunity wasted, a late run into the box from their left-wing-back, Colstock, allowed Athletic to unsettle their opponents defensive marking system leaving their number nine, J. Baker, unmarked in front of goal who turned the loose ball in from close range.
Rather than resting on their laurels after taking an early lead, the Cadbury played positively with their defenders constantly looking for opportunities to play it out quickly from the back. This tactic proved to be fruitful as they were rewarded again in the 23rd minute when a simple ball in behind was received by their right-midfielder who cut inside and unleashed a delightful curled shot that went in at the far post.
Looking to maintain this lead as they headed towards half time, Athletic looked to be shifting into a more defensive shape with their most potent attacking outlet being J.Baker whose hold-up play was nothing short of exceptional. His on-field connection with fellow striker Ramzi was second-to-none as they formed the type of “little and large” strike partnership that is a dying art in the elite game. As well as his work receiving knock-downs from Baker, Ramzi should also be highly praised for his mercurial dribbling that made for a fantastic spectacle with his lightning-fast feet frequently bamboozling the Coventry defenders.
Going into the break at 2-0 is never a bad thing and their commitment to keeping their lead was immediate to see at the start of the second half when their formation switched from 3-5-2 to a more defensive 4-4-2. This change did reduce the attacking opportunities for their full-backs, but it allowed a more structured shape in midfield that could combat the obvious strength that Coventry had in that position.
The first real Coventry change came around the halfway point of the second half when a defensive mix-up in Athletic’s penalty area gave one of their opponent’s space for a thunderous shot from just outside the box. The goalkeeper, who looked to have been beaten by the fantastic hit, looked relieved to see the ball sail narrowly over the crossbar. Almost as explosive as the shot, one of the home team’s centre-backs quickly told his fellow defenders in no uncertain terms what he thought of their mistake.
After regaining their composure following this scare, the Chocolate Men took another opportunity to play the ball deep into their opponent’s half. The ball was then picked up by Ramzi who’s dazzling pace took him past one Coventry defender and gave him space to take his shot and finally get the goal he had been waiting for – capping off what was certainly a man of the match performance. As soon as he’d finished celebrating, he was substituted with him leaving the pitch to much applause from the spectators.
As they were 3-0 down, it was easy to see the Coventry player’s frustrations starting to manifest themselves on the pitch. Following a few heavier-than-necessary tackles, one of their players received a ten-minute temporary dismissal for dissent. The man advantage was immediately capitalised on by the home side with their central midfielder, Roberts, getting on the score sheet by driving forward from the centre of the pitch and deftly placing a curling shot into the top left corner from just outside the box.
The final whistle blew with the score at 4-0, although in truth Coventry perhaps deserved a goal for their exertions. However, it could also be argued that Athletic’s clean sheet was well deserved thanks to some excellent goalkeeping from debutante Parsons, whose performance between the sticks was as confident and assured as someone playing their 100th game.
As I embarked on my walk back to the train station with a crisp autumn chill beginning to set in, I reflected on some of my preconceptions that I’d had prior to the game. I was happy to be proved wrong about the style of play I was expecting, the quick interplay between the midfielders and strikers was far from the agricultural long-ball approach that’s stereotypically associated with non-league football.
Overall, I found a community of people who turn up on a Saturday and just enjoy watching their local team. Obviously it doesn’t have the glitz and the glamour of the Premier League, but this is like football in its natural habitat – away from the corrupting influence of mind-boggling sums of money. There’s an elegant purity to non-league football that’s simply driven by the passion that everyone in the ground has for the game. If you love football, I can’t recommend heading down to catch a game enough – just remember to wrap up warm as although the action on the pitch can get heated, the stands certainly don’t!
*If you’d like to check out a game at Cadbury Athletic, they now offer concessions tickets to students for just £3 when you present a University of Birmingham ID card. Also, if you’re interested in trialing for them, you can email the club secretary Tim Delaney (email@example.com) for more information.
written by: Jake Sandy