Is there any reason to support a lower league club?
Sunday, 2nd Aug 2020 17:20 by AtThePeake
Even though I knew it was coming, there was still a real sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw Ian Henderson holding up a Salford City scarf on Wednesday afternoon.
That sinking feeling occurred again a few days later when I saw Callum Camps donning a Fleetwood Town shirt.
Not necessarily because of Henderson or Camps themselves. One thing's for sure, there are a myriad of mitigating circumstances when it comes to the Henderson deal in particular and one way or another, these two players were always likely to leave this summer.
I felt that sinking feeling because it seemed to me a continuation of a trend that has seen me question my love of lower league football more and more in recent years.
I remember at school, amid the scores of United and City supporters, I'd reiterate a rotation of statements regarding lower league football that I believed to be wholly true at the time. Perhaps in hindsight they never were - or perhaps the lower leagues are slowly losing their charm.
Were players ever more loyal in the lower leagues? Was the game ever really more exciting? Was it ever more of a level playing field? Were lower league fans ever more passionate and intrinsically a part of their club than Premier League supporters? You'll often see lower league supporters chastising the Premier League but in reality - how much different is it at our level?
Greed and carelessness has enveloped the top tier for quite some time now, even since before the dawn of the Premier League but as time goes on, the more it seeps into the lower reaches of the pyramid. The more we see clubs sprout up from the depths of non-league with swathes of cash, hoovering up the best talent available and leaving other clubs falling behind.
As a result, we're seeing clubs abandoning any notion of financial stability in order to simply keep up. Even those that don't particularly subscribe to that notion of overspending are constantly pressured by fans into 'showing some ambition!' and any idea of the club's long-term future is disregarded completely by supporters who are perhaps understandably frustrated to see their star players continuing to leave for perceivably smaller clubs.
I have no issue whatsoever with these players attempting to earn themselves as much money as possible from what is ultimately a very short career but there is something galling about losing our best players to clubs that ten years ago I barely knew existed. Add that to everything else and basically the question I'm asking is this - Is there any reason to support a lower league club?
In the Premier League you get the best atmospheres (anyone who claims the atmosphere at the majority of Dale home games is anything other than insipid is kidding themselves) and get to see some of the best players in the world pitting themselves against each other. For all of its many faults, the Premier League is still, in my opinion, the best league in the world in terms of the balance of competition and quality.
We constantly see fans of clubs at our level talk about players at the top level being interested only in money and fame, but is it really any different in League One? The money on offer may be lower, but almost every player would leave their club in a heartbeat for a better financial offer - so why do we reserve this criticism for those earning the most when the principle is still the same in League One?
Often, when I find myself unable to get to an away match in time or Dale are playing at an away ground that I've already been to and have no desire to return to (more on that shortly), I'll head to a local non-league game and although it's no substitute for a day spent celebrating a Dale win with close friends, the overall experience of a non-league game far outweighs that of a lower league fixture.
For a start, prices are much lower. The grounds tend to have a ramshackle or historic charm to them and the novelty of being able to sip a beer on the terrace doesn't wear off as quickly as one might expect. Although I don't have the same emotional connection to the result of these matches, they are often more high-scoring and entertaining (I've accompanied an FC United supporting friend to three games in the last three seasons and seen a total of 20 goals scored). I would 10 times out of 10 prefer to go and watch a non-league fixture as a neutral over one in League One or League Two.
So what do we get in the lower leagues? We get football that can hardly dub itself as 'affordable', whilst also being far from the best quality in the country. We get sanitised, identikit grounds in out-of-town retail parks. We get the grim reality of knowing that, realistically, without serious outside investment and all of the potential pitfalls that come with that, our chances of progression are basically zero.
Even that community feeling that used to feel part and parcel of supporting Dale appears to have disappeared in recent years. How many times has that relationship between club and supporter felt utterly strained for a variety of reasons in the last few years?
Of course, when I look back at promotions and cup runs and consider the possibility of more future success and joy, it's hard not to feel a swell of pride and excitement. However, in the cold hard light of day that is five months without a match and our best players joining clubs like Fleetwood and Salford it's hard not to feel the early strains of a footballing existential crisis.
Okay, that's maybe taking it a little too far. But if we don't win our first game back then I'm really in trouble!
Photo: Action Images
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