Mark Carruthers: How the magic of a non-league matchday is back as supporters return to the terraces
Non-league football has been missing some of its magic and allure over the last 18 months – but it has come back in full force since the start of the current season.
For months upon months, supporters were limited to watching from a distance as clubs at all levels struggled to cope with the impact of Covid-19.
The familiar babble and hubbub fell silent, the sight of long lines of expectant supporters snaking their way towards stadiums were nowhere to be seen.
The soundtrack to matchday switched to a din of players voices and the thud of ball on foot echoing around empty terraces.
The comforting wave of emotion, expectancy, and excitement all conspicuous by their absence.
I consider myself remarkably fortunate to be allowed to work within stadiums during this period – but, in all honesty, it was a hollow experience.
Today marks the start of the third month of competitive action this season, and, with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, it also means it is two months to the day since supporters returned to leave and cup fixtures without limitation.
I have made a point of experiencing two away trips in recent weeks as our clubs continued their attempts to reach the FA Cup first round.
Firstly, a “standard” Saturday away day with Hebburn Town as they travelled to National League North giants York City looking to pull off what would have been a major shock.
Just three days later, I was on the road once again with Blyth Spartans as they looked to avoid a cup upset (no, I won’t use the phrase cupset!) against Northern Premier League club FC United of Manchester.
This is not a piece to discuss the outcome of those games – and I am sure you will know Hebburn fell short in their bid for a surprise win and Spartans battled through with a 2-0 win thanks to a performance built on defensive discipline and a pacey counter-attack.
This week’s column is to celebrate the return of normality, the return of familiarity and the return of the magic of a non-league matchday.
It could have been the sheer boredom of a longer-than-usual bus journey but watching supporters’ buses and team coaches winding their way around the roads up and down the country brought out the football romantic in me.
This is what we have missed, this is why their absence has hurt so much.
It is often said that players, managers, chairmen and owners come and go, but supporters will remain for generation after generation.
And it is also safe to say that supporters have seen their impact on the game marginalised by an influx of ridiculously wealthy owners and ludicrously lucrative television deals at the top end of the game.
But their importance, unwavering loyalty and backing to non-league clubs can never and will never be understated and their absence during the last 18 months should only go to hammer home that point.
It was notable watching supporters of numerous clubs mingling at one of the many non-descript services on the A1 that a common bond has been formed during these challenging times.
Of course, traditional rivalries will continue always, and, perhaps, even be further enhanced with the return of supporters – but the conversations taking place were not of bragging rights and bettering each other on the pitch or on the terraces.
In the place of the usual “banter” were discussions of the struggles of coping with the distance between themselves and the clubs they hold close to their hearts.
There was talk of getting back to normality, the rush caused by the return of those long-lost emotions that can only be brought on by matchday and getting back into those routines that have been played out for generations gone by.
Hearing familiar chants reverberating around both stadiums and seeing supporters of all ages mingling in the seats and stands warmed the heart that had run cold during those dark days.
The guttural, lusty roar provoked by committed challenges, missed opportunities and ball meeting net provided a welcome replacement for the soundtrack of silence that was becoming overly familiar.
Even in the disappointment of defeat in Hebburn’s case, pride and passion shone through in a sun-kissed away end at York’s new LNER Community Stadium.
Seeing the Hornets squad stand in front of a thriving throng of almost 400 supporters brought a wave of emotion and provided an extreme contrast to the empty red seats that provided the backdrop for their FA Vase win at Wembley earlier this year.
And Spartans supporters were not many in number during their 2-0 win in Manchester, but their backing was wholeheartedly appreciated by Michael Nelson and his players when the full-time whistle was blown.
There is no doubt that the Green Army will descend on Guiseley in greater number this weekend when the Spartans look to take another step towards yet another appearance in the first round of the competition where they have become feared by many a Football League club.
They will hit the road alongside supporters of numerous clubs up and down the non-league pyramid this weekend as the merry dance played out by cars, coaches and buses are played out on roads around the country once again.
Supporters are back in numbers, and with them has come all of the magic that had been sadly missing during the challenging times of the last 18 months.