The following text was intended to appear in the Prescot Cables v Ramsbottom United Programme, 6th November 2018. However, such was the volume and quality of contributions from other writers, I took it out of the layout. I present it here, so that the time spent writing it is not entirely wasted!
I would imagine that, if he hadn’t already, Chris Sutton has turned off notifications from Twitter on his mobile phone.
The former Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers and Celtic player had been working for BBC Radio 5 Live last Monday evening, summarising the Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City match at Wembley. The pitch, having been used for an NFL match the previous day was looking rather less than pristine and, in an off-the-cuff remark, Sutton said this:
“The pitch is like a non-league surface. It is what you would expect to see on a Saturday afternoon.”
Within moments, The Non-League Paper had commented on this rather sweeping generalisation, causing countless clubs (including ours) to tweet photos of their playing surfaces to the former England B international.
Sutton later tried to claim that the comment had been “in jest” but I’m pretty sure the countless men and women up and down the country who spend hours and hours working on their local club’s pitch – often for no reward other than the satisfaction of a job well done – didn’t find it funny.
Of course, we all know what he really meant. And if he had swapped “non-league” for “Sunday league” and “Saturday afternoon” for “down the local park”, he would have made a rather good point about the state of facilities at grassroots level. After all, if the FA’s pitch is shot to bits, what chance does your average youth team have of playing on a decent surface?
You can call this level of football many things, but “grassroots”, it ain’t. The players are expected to do a lot more than simply turn up and play and are, of course, compensated for their efforts. In addition, the club can control who plays on the pitch and, to an extent, when, while grassroots clubs play when (or where) they can find somewhere to do so. The facilities here at Volair Park are maintained by the club, with any number of jobs done by volunteers to keep the show on the road. I’d argue that, in many scenarios, non-league clubs do things that their professional counterparts would do well to emulate.
That, I think, is why so many people got so upset with Sutton, calling him “lazy” and “ignorant”. There was, undoubtedly, a time when there was a marked difference between top-level football and the part-time game below up but that has never been less true than today.
Once in a while, my daughter and I attend matches at Football League clubs as assessors for the Family Excellence Programme. This is something the EFL does to try and encourage families to watch games together, so as to foster that lifelong love of the game and support of the club that turns a spectator into a supporter. Lots of clubs are doing excellent work in this area but there are certain factors they can do nothing about. Segregation and the ridiculous prohibition on having a beer within sight of the pitch are two of them. As a Programme Editor, I always study this part of the EFL matchday and have seen several examples that would incur fines from the Evo-Stik League!
By contrast, here at Cables, you can enjoy a pint of locally-brewed real ale, whilst watching the match. That pint might wash down an outstanding (again, locally-produced) pie or a home-made curry and you’ll be able to get all of this – entry to the match, a pie, pint and a programme, for less than it costs to watch a League Two match.
Once in the ground, you won’t be subjected to 90 minutes of violent, long-ball football played on a ploughed field, either. Both Cables and Ramsbottom United have squads packed with technical ability, pace and who have been drilled by experienced, knowledgeable coaches. From a fitness perspective, I reckon any of the players involved tonight would outrun half of the First Division of 40 years ago, part time or not.
The real point Sutton was attempting to make – that the state of the pitch at the National Stadium was not acceptable – was a fair one. However, The FA can’t be blamed for the fact that Tottenham’s new stadium isn’t ready, making a change of venue necessary. And to pick on a branch of football where clubs are working harder than ever to put a quality product in front of supporters was simply unfair.
We can, of course, always improve and should always strive to do so. But we should also celebrate what is glorious about the non-league game. If we can challenge a few stereotypes along the way, so much the better!