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Why you should try non-league football

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As the international break halted the progress of Europe’s top leagues, there were still footballing thrills and spills to be found over the weekend. I’m studying at Salford University and on Saturday dived head first into the lower echelons of the British game by taking the short taxi journey to Salford City’s home ground, Moor Lane. 

“5000 capacity stadium without a single extra parking space. The locals are fuming” the taxi driver tells me en route.

Salford City FC were taken over by the Class of 92 (Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs) in 2014 and has seen rapid success since, including two promotions in the last three years. The owners have high expectations for the club supposedly targeting a place in the Championship by 2030.

As well as signing new players, the owners have pumped significant amounts of money into the club’s infrastructure. Earlier this year they created the club’s first youth set up, Academy 92 and are continually rebuilding Moor Lane with three stands already constructed and a fourth to be finished in December.

“It’s more like a football league ground” the taxi driver adds before letting us out into the massing crowd. 

I’ve seen plenty of football matches live but the lowest level I’ve watched is Walsall vs Leeds in League 1. Saturday’s match of Salford City vs Leamington in the National League North was a world apart.  The ground may look football league but the feeling inside is refreshingly Conference North.

The stands are exceptional for this level but, fortunately, the fresh coat of paint does not hamper the atmosphere. You’re tight to pitch, an arm’s length from the players, the ground's muddy from the Lancastrian showers and you can hear the individual claps of every fan.

Salford were chasing promotion, second on goal difference. Leamington only a single point above the relegation zone, surely it would be a mismatch?

The players walked onto the pitch to roars of “come on Salford” and a muffled sound of “Leamington, la, la, la”. The stands are constructed with aluminium flooring meaning that when jumped upon, the surface makes a loud drum-like noise. The atmosphere generated is truly unique to this level of football, it’s worlds away from Wembley on Thursday night where fans were so bored they entertained themselves with paper aeroplanes.

Both teams started well and after 19 minutes Leamington’s Jack Edwards is pulled down in the area. Rob Thompson-Brown duly converts the penalty whilst the home fans jeer “cheat, cheat, cheat” to Edwards. Salford dominated from then on and deservedly equalised through Mike Phenix in the 29th minute.

On the stroke of half-time Leamington went 2-1 up through defender Connor Gudger’s fantastic free-kick. After the whistle is blown Salford joint boss Anthony Johnson accuses Leamington striker Edwards of diving for the earlier penalty. A mass fight between both sets of players ensues and spectators around the ground shout “knock him out Jonno!” In the Premier League, this would result in multiple sending’s off and match bans yet no player hits the deck and the referee brandishes just a single yellow card.

The second half kicks off at the scheduled time and Salford dominate, equalising after 65 minutes through Mike Phenix’s header. Salford then pressed on looking for a winner but, against the run of play, Leamington’s substitute Kurtis Revan scores direct from a corner with just six minutes remaining. The away fans invaded the pitch, the home fans curse their luck.

Full-time Salford City 2-3 Leamington. I left surrounded by distraught Salford City supporters having only spent a combined total of £8 on my ticket and food and buzzing after my first non-league football experience. The next #nonleagueday is on November 11th  and I can't recommend it highly enough to all football fans.

All photography: Joe Rindl 

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