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Non-League Day, a reminder that English football extends beyond the Premier League

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As the Premier League and the Championship take the weekend off, English football revels in the chance to celebrate its remarkable non-league clubs.

Ben Hoskins

Sometimes the best things are happy accidents. Back in 2010, international football moved from Saturdays and Wednesdays to Fridays and Tuesdays. The intended effect was to give overworked elite players an extra day's recovery time between the last game of the international break, and so placate angry clubs that weren't very happy with their best players turning up knackered on a Thursday. But it also left Saturdays — in England, the traditional football days — curiously empty, with little international football and no games happening in either the Premier League and the Championship.

Enter Non-League Day. Part an opportunistic attempt to capitalise on the sudden free time given to thousands of football fans, part a sharp reminding nudge to those same football fans that football does continue to exist even when Manchester United aren't busy, what began in 2010 as a " social media experiment" is now a fixture in the football season. As the website puts it:

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.

The depth of organised, semi-professional football is one of the defining characteristics of the English game. In the men's game, non-league begins at the Conference (the league below League Two, effectively the fifth tier) and then multiplies on downwards, splitting into regional leagues of ever-increasing locality, yet all connected to the very top. Non-league is a world of small teams from small towns, of strange, resonant names. Peacehaven & Telscombe. Gainsborough Trinity. Folkestone Invicta. The Isthmian League.

True non-league devotees exist, in caricature, as strange and lonely figures that spend their time standing in the driving rain, watching out-of-shape amateurs exchange long, hopeful punts with one another, occasionally nodding and muttering "Aye, proper football." Like most caricatures, there's the odd grain of truth in there; just as there is in the oppositional figure, the Premier League fan as brought to you by Sky Sports, half-and-half scarf dangling over scrupulously up-to-date replica shirt, megastore bag in one hand, iPad in the other. But behind the stereotype, non-league football stands as the reminder of where football came from, of what it once was.

That quote from the website above places "volunteer led community football" at the centre of the whole exercise. A recent piece in the Times [£] highlighted the extraordinary Richie McLoughlin, founder, chairman, stadium builder, treasurer and manager of Jarrow Roofing (Northern League Division One), a non-league team near Sunderland. Though an extreme example — very few individuals do all of the above — his attempts to describe precisely why he gets up every morning at four to take care of a football club neatly explain everything, even as they explain nothing: "I don't know why. Probably stupidity, but never mind. It's a case of — I don't know — I call it ‘in the blood', but obsession is another word."

For nobody — with the possible exception of the occasional dream-crushing property developer — is making much money down here. Maybe some of the players are still nursing dreams of scaling the pyramid, Grant Holt style, but plenty others just play football because, well, they need to play football. The stewards are stewarding for the same slightly inchoate, undefinable reason, a peculiar combination of addiction, habit and love. So are those who write in the programmes, those who staff the turnstiles, those who sell the scarves, those who print the fanzines, those who paint the flags, those who pour the tea and those who stand in the rain and try to keep their noses dry. It all harks back to a time when football clubs didn't need and didn't want to be any bigger than the communities they came from and stood for, because that would rather defeat the point. It doesn't take an ardent #AgainstModernFootball stance to be able to enjoy that, though the contrast is rather driven home by the juxtaposition of Non-League Day with the peculiar carnival of Transfer Deadline Day.

Even if none of that matters, there's plenty more to appeal about the lower echelons. There's the price, of course — a family day out in the Premier League can run into the hundreds of pounds; similar money will buy you a non-league advertising board — but there's also the everything else. The ability to stand by the side of the pitch with a drink in your hand. To change ends with the team at half time, ensuring no escape for the opposition goalkeeper. To watch a football match on one's own terms, whether that be stood under cover, out in the elements, hidden in the bar, or with the kids let loose to sprint round and round the pitch. Facilities allowing, of course. And if you're going to Leatherhead, best watch for the walls.

With this almost missionary aim at its heart, Non-League Day sees many clubs offer some kind of discount to entice in those who suddenly find their Saturdays free. Most will offer reduced prices for those who hold season tickets at Premier League or Championship clubs, while some are going further this year: Stalybridge Celtic(Conference North) are offering half-price admission for local emergency services employees, Kidderminster Harriers (Conference Premier) are letting kids in for £1, while Truro City (Southern League Premier) are handing out special edition scarves.

South Londoners, meanwhile, are spoiled for choice. On Saturday, Dulwich Hamlet (Isthmian Premier) hope to break their attendance record (currently 1,835) by asking attendees to pay what they can, with all profits going to local charities; on Sunday, Fisher FC (Southern Counties East League) have teamed up with a local food bank, offering discounted tickets with any donation. Perhaps the most original offer this time around comes from Bungay Town (Anglian Combination Division Two), who are offering all those who attend a complimentary punnet of mushrooms.

In short, something for everybody. Like a football club itself, Non-League Day has grown from somebody thinking "this would be a nice idea" to an accepted institution. If you're on the right side of the Atlantic and the Channel, there's an interactive map here to help you find your closest match. If not, well, here's a short documentary starring Wingate & Finchley (Isthmian Premier), which will have to do. The Premier League may think of itself as the best league in the world, and it's certainly the noisiest, but even it has to shut up sometimes.