It’s been a slow start to the season both for me, and my team, North Ferriby United. Working Saturdays has meant that I’m still in single figures for games attended so far this season. Perhaps it’s been a blessing in disguise, as Ferriby have hardly set the world on fire with a start that has seen us only win one from the opening ten games, scoring just 3 goals in the process. ( Actually, retract that, missing football is NEVER a blessing ) Frustrating would be an understatement. I won’t bore you with stats and figures – or indeed a history lesson – but the last few years have been halcyon times for The Villagers, culminating in a debut season last year in the National League, which ultimately ended in glorious failure, and relegation back to National North. Hardly unexpected for a village team operating on a small budget, in a predominantly Full-time world. A Summer of further drama ( for the second year running ) saw budget reductions and widespread departures, at one point leaving only 7 players on the books. Recruitment would be done on the cheap, in leagues below our current Step 2 status. Most of the remaining faithful supporters expected a long, hard season, and to date it’s been exactly that.
Tuesday came round, and a chance for me to attend a game. I’d been at the Darlington game the previous Saturday – setting a new land speed record to get from work to the game, only missing the first 5 minutes – and seen us grind out a point against a team that many expect to do well. Perhaps we were turning the corner after all. Tonight’s opponents would be another side from the North East, big-spending and ambitious Spennymoor, a team aiming high on the back of successive promotions. This would be a good indicator of where we were at, with nearly a quarter of the season gone, but still barely into September.
What followed was nothing short of a disaster. 0-1 down in 2 minutes, a copy-cat goal of one conceded against previous opponents Chorley, highlighting our lack of experience at left back. It was 0-3 and game over after 17 minutes. Every flowing, attacking move from the visitors looked liked ending in a goal. Sure enough, by Half time it was 0-4. Even the locals were getting on the back of manager Steve Housham, questioning the set-up of the side. Certainly we had some square pegs in round holes, but a manager can only put out players he has at his disposal, and at the moment this side pretty much picks itself. Sent out early from the break, a further goal conceded saw the last 30 minutes played out at a training game pace, the visitors taking their foot of the gas, and the Home sides every attack or successful passage of play was greeted with ironic cheers. Calling out the manager’s tactical application became more prevalent from the Home masses, now housed under the stand sheltering from the persistent downpour. A final score of 0-6 left the majority of the ( small ) crowd shuffling off home in the rain, wondering where our next points – or even a goal – were coming from.
Back home, and dried off, I took to social media to see the reactions to what we had seen. Updating the twitter account for the fanzine I run ( @VFTAE ) I posted how disappointing the evening was – on the pitch – how we were slow in comparison to the visitors, both mentally and technically. Our passing was poor, despite the slick surface, and we seemed second to the ball all over the park. This led to people expressing their disappointment at our commitment. Slightly taken aback, I was amazed how many were now questioning the players desire. I’d taken the viewpoint that we were outplayed – perhaps acceptable given the oppositions quality – but now more people were opening my eyes to something that I hadn’t expected, that for the first time in many years, we just weren’t competing.
At any level of football, you can ( almost ) make exceptions for a players technique or ability. We expect players at the top-level to be almost robotic, with fantastic vision coupled with ability. Touch and skill are rarely a deficiency. This decreases somewhat as you go down the divisions. It’s only human nature, not everyone can be the best footballer on the planet. However, down the leagues, you tend to find that the more the technique and skill diminishes, the work rate and desire is increased. Players seemingly try to be better at something that may not naturally come to them. Years ago it was the stuff that the British game was based on, something that still gets a mention today, despite the influx of foreign players. Things change, but fans still love to see endeavour. Any skill on show is a bonus. This certainly rings true in Non-league football. Many of these players have been on the books of professional clubs, where the progress of their careers has stalled, and for whatever reason they find themselves dropping out of the league. Some settle into this level, working regular jobs during the week, and playing a high standard of football on a weekend. Others see it as a shop window to get back into the professional game. An ever-growing number of Non-league clubs still operate on a Full-time professional basis. But no matter what the level a player is operating at, to have his commitment or desire questioned is the ultimate slur.
By 11pm on the Tuesday of the Spennymoor game, the timeline on the fanzine Twitter account was full of remarks on our players desire and commitment. There was no doubt we were second to the ball all over the pitch, but do we honestly think that players don’t go out to be the best they can be ? In football, not “getting stuck in” is a sin in the eye of the supporters. As I stated above, at our level it’s the least we expect. We can forgive the lack of quality, but we demand the commitment to the cause. Is it possible that due to the proximity to the pitch, we notice more in Non-league, than someone sat in Row Z of a 50,000 seat stadium does ? Are we more critical of lads playing for a few quid and some petrol money, than we are of the Millionaires that ply their trade in the top-flight ? How could you possibly question the effort of someone who has been at work all day, driven to the stadium, had a sandwich and banana for their tea, and then put in 90 minutes on the pitch ? But, ultimately, we do. We’re an unforgiving bunch, quick to criticise, but it’s all with the desire for our players and club to do well. Living out our dreams through their endeavours is all we are left with. The players are a representation of us. We only hope their desperation for success is as strong as ours.
By the time I went to bed, talk had turned from the players, to the manager, and onto the owners. We’re a fickle bunch, football fans ! The general atmosphere at the club is not good. A club up for sale, running on a shoe-string, has perhaps seen the apathy flow down to the players. It’s almost understandable, as it would be in any walk of life or work. It’s a downward spiral that hopefully soon will be arrested. We can only hope that the desire on the terraces is matched by a commitment on the pitch. It’s the last hope we hang onto.
Footnote – Five days after the defeat to Spennymoor, Ferriby went out of the F.A. Cup at the first hurdle, losing 1-0 to NWCFL ( Step 5 ) side 1874 Northwich. It seems we still have a long season ahead of us…….