A love letter to non-league football this Valentine's Day
I, a formerly staunch football hater, have been converted.
Non-league has turned me into a believer.
For years, growing up in the United States, I shunned football. To me, it equated hooliganism- even on a makeshift schoolyard pitch 5,300 miles away from where I write this. Various high school friends were casual Manchester United and Chelsea fans, but those names meant nothing to me.
Our high school soccer team was undoubtedly the most successful team the school could produce across all athletic ventures but I had no appreciation for it. I didn’t go to a single match in four years.
Looking back, I wish I had garnered some appreciation for the game, even if it was in the name of school spirit.
After moving to the UK in 2014, ‘soccer’ became ‘football’ and the obsession was all around me. One of my flat mates in my first year was a semi-professional female footballer but I was more interested in the completely foreign sport of rugby than kicking a ball around with her.
I regret not going to any of the matches she asked me to watch.
This year, I began a sports journalism course where football was the common thread. The English-born students possessed an inherent knowledge of the game - much like Americans do for baseball and American football - and I knew I could never scratch the surface. I was too scared to try.
I became an Everton fan, purely by luck and a random number generator. My first ever attempt at writing a match preview and report in any capacity was for the Toffees, and it was obvious I lacked this knowledge needed to do this.
Still, I was determined to give football a chance. It was the most “English” thing I could get involved with.
A Chelsea Ladies match in October was a turning point in my attitude towards football. Even though it was a small crowd at Stamford Bridge, it was a spirited one. Although I wasn't exactly following what was happening, I was definitely keen to keep learning the intricacies of the sport.
But the exact moment I became a true football fan was watching my local side in Hampton on a drizzling January afternoon. I had heard a lot about Hampton and Richmond Borough FC, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about.
Everything finally clicked for me. Premier League and Championship football are a bit too perfect, and to watch matches on TV is dull. Non-league football has imperfections, many of them, and that adds excitement to the game. The players are playing for the love of the game, not the pay cheque, and their commitment is obvious for those 90 minutes.
The local fans really made the atmosphere special. There were so many families that brought their kids out to support. Several kids were in football kit and it was inspiring to see them so excited for the game. Although there were only about 500 supporters out, they were all there to get behind the lads.
It was reminiscent of high school sports back home. Devotion to the home side was evident, but even the die-hards mixed well with fans from visiting Bishop Stortford. Had it been a Premier League game, I highly doubt that people would have interacted so well. The community spirit increased as the announcer kept the crowd updated on FA Cup scores (who knew there were so many people rooting for High Wycombe?!) throughout the game.
In short, I was enamoured.
I had been told by a colleague that non-league football tended to end in a lot of draws, but this was an absolute corker of a match with a 4-1 victory for the Beavers.
I’ll probably never be a die-hard fan for a professional team, but I don’t mind loving and supporting the semi-professional sides.
So thank you, Hampton and Richmond Borough Football Club, for teaching me that the game isn't all hooligans and ridiculously overpaid pretty boys.
Now if you need me, you can find me at the Beveree, every other Saturday at 3pm.