Mark Carruthers: Gateshead's style of play shows why stereotypical views of the non-league scene need to change

Is it time for the stereotypical views of the non-league scene to change?

Wednesday, 15th December 2021, 1:53 pm
Mark Carruthers' non-league column.

Can we still be subjected to the all-too-predictable views that every side in non-league football play long ball football and only really relish the physical side of the game?

Of course, that is not to say there aren’t managers and coaches that prefer to be more direct in their approach.

And many a squad contains players that are only too willing to through themselves into tackles with little thought of their own wellbeing - but it would be grossly unfair to suggest that every non-league side adopt the same approach.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

I kept a keen eye on social media before, during and after Gateshead’s televised FA Cup tie against League One club Charlton Athletic.

A number of Addicks supporters were preparing for their side to be subjected to something akin to the style of football “showcased” by the Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ or Stoke City under Tony Pulis.

And sometimes I wonder whether this view is held within clubs in the Premier League and EFL when they consider sending their younger players out on loan.

The same could be said of youngster released by clubs at the top level of the game as they assess the options available to them.

Gateshead’s performance could and should have debunked a number of theories as they stayed true to the brand of football encouraged by Mike Williamson, Ian Watson and Louis Storey.

Playing out from the back, keeping the ball on the floor and adopting a patient style of play may well have surprised their opponents and many keen onlookers - but it will surprise nobody that has watched the Heed over the last two and a half seasons.

They are far from alone in playing a far more attractive brand than the one commonly imposed on non-league clubs around the country.

It would be easy to reel off a list of clubs that like to play patient, possession football and I am sure any non-league supporters could do the same.

But what is worth pointing out is the success of former Premier League and Football League academy products in those sides.

A conversation held with Hebburn Town manager Kevin Bolam in the aftermath of last weekend’s impressive win at Cleethorpes Town brought us on to recent signing Ollie Walters.

The young full-back was released by Newcastle United at the end of last season and joined the Hornets last month.

Having covered the Magpies Under-23s side on a number of occasions over the last two or three years, I can say that I always believed Walters would be a solid signing for a side at most levels in the game.

He is a ‘seven out of ten player’ week-in, week-out and he rarely let Newcastle down as he made his way through their academy sides.

So, with all respect to Hebburn Town, I don’t mind admitting it was something of a surprise that he has joined a club sat in the fourth tier of the non-league game.

His new manager agreed with that view - but also gave a fascinating insight into the challenges faced on both sides of a deal when a released player joins a new club.

As Kevin so eloquently put it, Walters had to come through the “muck and bullets” as he made his first start in almost two years at Cleethorpes last Saturday.

The young defender would have walked into something a world away from the pristine pitches and state-of-the-art facilities he would have experienced throughout his upbringing at the top end of the game.

Bolam also discussed helping the youngster recover from the mental blow of his release from the Magpies and that is yet another challenging facing them both.

Slotting into Hebburn’s style of play certainly will not because - having known Kevin for almost 15 years - I know that he will encourage Walters to get on the ball and express himself from his full-back position.

It is no coincidence that the likes of South Shields’ duo Jack Bodenham and Jordan Hunter and Gateshead’s Owen Bailey have seamlessly moved into the non-league game with sides that play a style similar to those used in academy football.

Of course, patience has to be shown from both manager and player as the latter adjusts to life away from the elite - but in Bolam’s words: “If you get the mental side right with them, you have a real player” – he added.

Managers taking on a player recently released from Premier League and EFL clubs always have a number of factors to consider and challenges to face.

But they can also provide the player with a valuable platform to not only rediscover their love for the game, but also to use their time with the club as a springboard to moving back up the football pyramid.

There are some fine examples of what can be achieved by a move into the North East non-league football scene with the likes of Marcus Maddison, Luke Armstrong and Cedwyn Scott all earning moves back into the professional game on the back of their form with our clubs.

I am certain more will follow in the coming years and debunking the old stereotypes surrounding non-league will hopefully encourage more former academy players to try their luck at this level of the game.