Non-League Day 2018

Well, like religion, politics and the best way to poach an egg, the subject of football can be a divisive one, based on divergent passions and opinions, sparking shouty, frank exchanges that regularly end in scenes of grown men pouting, sulking and storming out. But more of the Man United dressing room/press conference/training ground/team bus/Jose’s Lowry Hotel room later.

But today wasn’t about the egos of fantasy football or moneybags teams, it was Non-League Day 2018. Set up by James Doe in 2010 as a social media experiment, inspired by a pre-season trip to Devon to watch QPR play at Tavistock, it is now a fixture in the annual football calendar.

Always scheduled to coincide with an international break, Non-League Day provides a platform for clubs to promote the importance of affordable volunteer led community football while giving fans across the country the chance to show support for their local non-league side.

My usual Saturday calling is Burnley, currently enjoying our best times for over fifty years, but today I set off from Deganwy to walk the two miles to take in Conwy Borough versus Porthmadog in the Huws Gray Alliance League, the second level of league football in Wales.

There has been a Conwy town team stretching back to the 1870s, and they count Neville Southall amongst their former players. The club were the Welsh representatives in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963/64, and qualified for the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1995/96. In the following three seasons they reached the semi-finals of the Welsh Cup, most notably holding Swansea City 0-0 at the Vetch Field.

However, the financial burden was too much, and subsequent seasons have seen many changes as the club found its level. Renamed Conwy Borough F.C. in 1912, a new clubhouse was opened in 2014, and a recent upgrade to the floodlights funded. With a thriving junior section, a youth academy has also been established as the club looks to develop local talent.

The early morning weather in Wales was enough to start rumours of Noah being spotted on the high street with several planks of wood under his arm, as Storm Callum battered Wales with torrential rain. It was a day for the pluviophiles.

It reminded me of the monsoon at Burnley’s game on 18 December 1989, an F.A. Cup second round replay – Burnley 5 Scunthorpe 0 – a Roger Eli double setting us on our way I recall, in what was our fifth consecutive season in the old Division Four. Average crowd 6,017, we were in the doldrums then for sure, veering around our own apocalyptic version of Non-League Day.

So, after an early morning pitch inspection by the RNLI, I left the house with my wife serenading me with the opening bars of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, and the game was on, and Non-League Day hit the Y Morfa ground. Having suffered a 0-2 reversal against the same opponents in a mid-week cup tie, would Conwy get revenge?

It was an important league game. Airbus Broughton sit top of the league with 100% record from nine games, Conwy were sixth on fourteen points, with a tidy defence but needing to find the back of the net more, whilst Porthmadog were two points ahead in fourth.

Around me were the regulars, greeting each other with familiarity, sincere handshakes and nods. It was like a scene from Coronation Street, comforting, heartening and human. A convivial ambiance prevailed. I felt an immediate bond. I was amidst real football fans.

conwy borough

The weather became benign and a man in a yellow sou’wester stood next to me revealed himself as The Commentator. Come on Blues, he called to himself, after ten minutes, as Conwy’s attacking menace drifted towards melancholy. If you could only pass the ball more accurately to one another and get the occasional shot on target you’d likely find yourself in front. His voice was mellifluous as that of the vicar outlining plans for the Christmas Day Service, as he ran a quiet narrative to himself.

Within less than twenty minutes gone disaster for Conwy as they were down to ten men, Iolo Hughes sent off for dissent – two yellows in quick succession meaning a reshuffle for manager Gareth Thomas. Porthmadog were looking the more likely to score, when just before half-time there was a right kerfuffle of handbags between the teams, with the ref sharing out four yellow cards.

In the next piece of action, as I contemplated the mandatory half-time pie, Gerwyn Jones got up higher to thump one in better than any Harry Maguire effort – 1-0, cue mayhem from the Conwy Ultras (think Galatassary), the home spectators in the 156 crowd going bonkers as an eventful first half ended on a high.

Conwy’s centre forward Seager was injured just after half time and recent signing Conor Harwood came on for his debut. Porthmadog got themselves together, and Gruff John Williams – yes, that’s his name - nailed two goals in the 73rd and 89th minutes their domination deserved, to lead 2-1.

Surely the three points were safe now, but the never-say-die-spirit of the depleted home side prevailed. A break down the right and a cross to the back post found Corrig McGonigle lurking and his header looped into the far corner to snatch a point and the Conwy Ultras did their thing, final score 2-2. Home keeper Keighan Jones was deservedly man of the match behind an organised, resilient defence with some great saves earning Conwy the point.

I didn’t come for wildly skilful football, but had a great afternoon. I was standing around in the fading light of autumn, out doors in the fresh air, soaked to the skin (unlike my sou’wester friend), but it was a throw back to my childhood. Alternate Saturdays as a kid, with Burnley playing away, we’d go down to Accrington. The novelty of changing ends at half-time to get behind the nets we were shooting in, and getting snow on your chips in winter because the standing terraces were open, memories came flooding back.

This was a great afternoon’s entertainment of genuine effort and endeavour to be admired. The skill was obviously not what we see on MoTD, but two thoughts sprung to mind.

It was better than listening to Jose. As Karl Pilkington said last week, I feel like supporting United is like having a tortoise as a pet. I had a tortoise, and they are not entertaining to watch. You don't watch them, but you know you have got a bit of responsibility to show some interest. That is what I do with United. I keep an eye on them. I don't watch them every game because, at the minute, that is a waste of 90 minutes.

Secondly, watching the game directly in front of you was better than listening to any punditry. We have Gary Lineker perpetually leaping into chitchat and dad jokes, Rio Ferdinand’s exuberant but tongue-tied comments (check out his Sex Fabregas and Banana Silva) whilst Ian Wright just flaps like he’s seen a Kardashian. Alan Shearer talks so slowly, the same pace of a dog moving with all the urgency like it knows it’s being taken to the vet.

I’m hooked. This is my fiftieth season of following Burnley, but I’ll be back at Conwy again when I can’t get to a Burnley game. This was an opportunity to experience football culture at a level many of us may be otherwise unfamiliar with.

Non-League Day is about the ritual and rhythm of supporting a local football club, about devotion, loyalty and commitment at any one of the thousands of small clubs, which attract an army of dedicated helpers and supporters each week. Check out these photographs by Colin McPherson, and don’t tell me you’re not affected by the visible passion, camaraderie and sheer sense of belonging to a club.

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