There are many reasons to savour the early rounds of the FA Cup, but perhaps the most compelling is that new clubs are given a deserved spotlight and underappreciated stories are aired to wider audiences.
For those whose passions have been dulled by the exorbitant greed of Premier League football, there is something intoxicating about watching a non-league club seek to make the third round of the FA Cup. The likes of AFC Fylde and Leatherhead impressed viewers with not only their aptitude on the field, but their raucous support off the pitch.
All non-league grounds have an appeal in that they are offering an experience undistilled and intimate. While Anfield and Old Trafford may be iconic stadia, a trip to Sheffield FC’s ground to watch the first ever football club in action is a throwback to football in its purest form.
There is a reason that so many youngsters grow weary of playing for the reserves and seek a non-league loan; Ipswich’s George Fowler and Adam McDonnell are part of promotion-chasing Aldershot’s side in the National League, and cite the chance to play in competitive fixtures where the fans care as hugely important for their development.
Aldershot’s Recreation Ground is the epitome of idyllic notions of non-league football, situated in a public park and evocative of football from an earlier era. The ground boasts a capacity of 7000, a size that would not look out of place alongside many League Two sides.
However, it is not just the impressive size of non-league grounds that can sometimes surprise, but often there are unique characteristics that make them worth the trip. Stourbridge’s War Memorial Athletic Ground hosts both football and cricket, and therefore is shaped by the requirements to present both sports.
Regular viewers of Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday will have witnessed the highs and lows of being a Hartlepool United fan through the medium of presenter Jeff Stelling’s explicit celebrations and commiserations. Recent flirtations with relegation from League Two progressed to something more serious, with the club now plying their trade in the National League with mixed fortunes.
Last season Hartlepool were travelling to grounds like Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, the 21,000 capacity home to the relatively recent FA Cup winners. This season, Hartlepool have to make a similar journey in terms of length to play Dover Athletic.
A 329-mile drive awaits Hartlepool to journey to Dover’s Crabble Athletic Ground, with a quarter of Portsmouth’s capacity and one-twentieth of its seats. However, the stadium will be buoyant as a result of Dover being in a promotion hunt hoping to make their debut in the Football League next season.
Those seeking football tips may even find Dover as regular features in advised accumulators, with odds of 13/15 at Betsafe to prevail at home to Hartlepool indicative of how quickly fortunes can change in the rough and tumble of non-league football. Hartlepool can take solace that they are faring better than their recent relegation companions Leyton Orient, who are embroiled in another relegation battle.
Relegation can place familiar clubs in unfamiliar situations, with once Premier League clubs Portsmouth and Blackpool both only one relegation away from non-league football in recent years. Fratton Park would have physically dwarfed many of the non-league stadia, but not in terms of spirit. The recent initiative of Non-League Day to tempt supporters of the bigger clubs to try their local club during the relative boredom of an international break is laudable.
Ultimately there is no definitive list of the best non-league grounds; the best non-league ground is your local ground, as it hosts an experience that is pure, impassioned and far removed from the unsavoury elements of the modern game.