The following is a guest post by Two Footed Tackle's Chris Nee.
I was recently challenged by Kirsten Schlewitz to make a difficult argument. I'm a supporter of Tooting & Mitcham United, a deceptively famous old English club that plays in the Isthmian Football League Premier Division, one of three regionalised leagues that make up the third level of non-league football in England, level seven in English football overall. The challenge? Sell Tooting & Mitcham to America. No biggy, then.
The origin of this throwing down of the gauntlet is very simple and I've only myself to blame. Having grown tired of dragging myself, tired and hungover, from London to Birmingham every other weekend to watch my team compete in a division that is growing ever more sanitised and artificial, I chose instead to spend a weekend or two supporting my local club. I fell for the Terrors instantly, and after extricating myself from a longstanding season ticket at Villa Park I haven't looked back.
As it happens, I got hooked on Major League Soccer, American soccer history and - most importantly - American soccer culture at around the same time. This post, my reluctant but hopefully compelling argument for non-league, is merely the meeting of two passions. And while I'd love for just one person who reads it to become a remote Terror, what really matters is that non-league clubs all over the country pick up support wherever and however they can. The margins really are that tight.
Before getting too preachy (and I will, for this is where I find joy these days in a game that has forever been an enormous part of my life), it's only fair to point out the limitations that are part and parcel of following a non-league side from halfway around the world.
Firstly, it's more or less impossible to do so (yeah, sorry about that). Highlights are hard to come by and live coverage - at least in terms of being able to actually see the action - simply doesn't exist, so you'll have a tough time staying in touch with your adopted team's performances. It's also problematic to buy merchandise; if you happen to gain an interest in my particular club, you'll have picked one where even the locals can barely buy a shirt.
Those two snags aside, a passion for non-league is a very worthwhile exercise. For starters even the aforementioned barriers are gradually lowering. The same wonderful technology that lets me proselytise is also beginning to enable these very often tiny clubs to act big. What with YouTube highlights beginning to appear, live online radio commentary (fan-generated, naturally) hitting the fibre-optic airwaves and ecommerce becoming more easily manageable for smaller concerns, the lot of the remote supporter is improving. Why not adopt early?
Now that I've given it the big one about non-league in general, meet my club. It was formed by the merger of Tooting Town and Mitcham Wanderers in 1932 and has been kicking around in non-league ever since, their proudest moment being the game in which they were pegged back after going 2-0 up against eventual winners Nottingham Forest in the third round of the 1959 FA Cup. The legendary Paddy Hasty is said to be the club's greatest ever player; he made his debut in 1954. So, it's been an unspectacular existence for the club since then - the crowds are small but the club still a famous name, making it perfect adoption fodder for the deliberately eclectic.
A modest record also means that the club as a whole is - like most in non-league - very down to earth. The welcome is warm, every supporter (local or otherwise) appreciated as an individual and the players routinely know supporters by name despite the affection in which they're held by fans being no different to the adoration of players higher up the pyramid.
More importantly, the team has ties to a wonderful, beautiful, iconic part of London. Sort of. Tooting might not be Soho, or Chelsea, or the South Bank, but it is a (pretend) republic, thanks in large part to the mighty Wolfie Smith and the Tooting Popular Front. Tooting, like the local football club, is easy to love and difficult to fully comprehend.
Ultimately, following Tooting & Mitcham provides what I hope some of my American friends look for from their English football intake: an authentic English football experience. Ok, it's largely mediocrity based, but clubs like Tooting are about character, community and camaraderie more than results and tangible achievements. This is where English football really comes into its own and you can be a part of it by following @TMUFC on Twitter. There will be a legitimate official website one day too. Maybe.