After this weekend’s FA Cup fourth qualifying round, the 32 remaining non-league clubs will seek to upset the likes of Hull City, Sunderland and Portsmouth in the first round proper.
Unfortunately for 23-year-old centre-back Kennedy Digie, his Hereford FC side fell in the previous qualifying round to seventh-tier Stafford Rangers. “It’s big for the fans, obviously the players want to draw a big team. Although, when teams get knocked out they are happy to focus on the league, I think the main thing is getting promoted.”
Prioritising promotion over a cup run is crucial for those who rely solely on non-league football for their livelihood. Although they are not yet universal, full-time contracts are becoming commonplace in formerly semi-professional divisions. With this in mind, Digie illustrates what it’s like for part-timers and full-timers to compete at the same level of the game.
A Tighter Group, An Ingrained Philosophy
Part-time players often face the daunting task of incorporating a full-time job, two training days per week and a weekend match into their schedule. Digie, currently part-time with Hereford but formerly full-time with Kidderminster Harriers, has seen both sides.
“When you are full-time everything is set up for you in the sessions, you just go and put in work. The manager also has more training days to put things into practice, so we had more time to get their philosophy ingrained in our heads
It helps with the changing room as well. The boys are around each other constantly and the group becomes closer because of that.”
These clear benefits almost always translate onto the pitch. Since the modern National League structure was introduced in 2002, only Burton Albion in 2008-09 have achieved promotion as part-timers. As such, one might think that committing to a full-time playing staff is a no-brainer – but matters in the lower echelons of English football are rarely so simple.
Trade-Off Between Charm And Success
Full-time players require significantly higher wages. All of a sudden, instead of representing little more than a top-up income, contracts must cover the foregone income from a player’s ‘other job’.
This financial leap of faith, so crucial to success according to the history books, requires non-league clubs to become more revenue-oriented. This philosophical change seems to directly contradict the principles of community which have historically governed non-league football. In short, some teams do not want to take the financial risk, whilst some do not want to sacrifice the charm on which their fanbase is built in order to pursue success.
Non-league football is fraught with financial imbalances as a result. The lofty ambitions of Billericay Town, Fleetwood Town and Salford City have all been supported by cash injections and full-time players in recent years, and all have rapidly ascended through the leagues as a result. With only one automatic promotion spot to League Two, spending big almost seems a pre-requisite for success.
“A lot of players love the challenge,” said Digie, “but I don’t think it’s ideal when there’s a big difference between teams’ budgets in the same league.”
Financial Fair Play highlights financial irregularities in Europe’s top divisions, but matters lower down the pyramid tend to be overlooked. While spending big to chase success is a method used at almost every level of the game, such financial imbalances naturally raise questions of fairness.
Growth In Quality
With the vast majority of National League clubs now full-time, the quality gap between non-league and League Two diminishes, as Digie knows well from his experience in the division.
“Sometimes when the wealthier clubs bring league players into our division they’re surprised to see the level of talent. That really shows that it’s not always the better players playing at higher levels.”
Non-league is now a well-known breeding ground for emerging talent. The lower tiers’ gradual professionalisation underlies the steady growth in quality seen in recent years. In many ways, this suggests that non-league football is on a positive path. More full-timers breed more competition, and more competition allows emerging talents like Digie to test themselves against high-calibre opponents.
“I don’t want to sound like a psycho, but my goals are still pretty high. I still think I can go to the very top.”
Players in the fifth, sixth tiers and below know that progression is now possible from such a level, even if part-time structures require many to do it the hard way.
Come FA Cup first round weekend, 32 non-league hopefuls will chase big-time fixtures once again. For many, players and clubs alike, it will be their only opportunity to compete at such dizzying heights. The evolution of non-league football, however, suggests plenty of talented players will see it as a taster for what’s to come.