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BLOG: LEAGUES APART

In the latest of his regular columns, Hillary Street-Ender takes a look at pre-season, and discusses the virtues of playing non-league sides, along with a few memories of past encounters whilst watching the Mighty Reds.

In the latest of his regular columns, Hillary Street-Ender takes a look at pre-season, and discusses the virtues of playing non-league sides, along with a few memories of past encounters whilst watching the Mighty Reds...

It’s that strange time of year where it’s not quite the football season but it’s not not the football season either. We’re in that strange semi-world where matches have begun taking place again but in such a way that we can enjoy actually them. Make the most of it because it doesn't last long. It’s the only time of year when some of us will go to a game as a neutral, just for the sheer pleasure inherent in not having a vested interest in the outcome and being able to enjoy the football for its’ own sake. Seeing someone from non-league having a decent game and wondering if you ought to give your own club a call to ask if they’re aware of him while knowing that the club probably won’t want to know if any potential deal would involve an actual fee.

With the Saddlers we know that whatever home friendly games are arranged are all about getting backsides inside Bescot and much less about the football. We're all bored to death with playing Villa every year but they bring three thousand fans each time so a match against our Brummie ‘friends’ is pretty much nailed on to take place every July. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the claret and blue hordes stopping off in WS1 every twelve months because the real fascination at this time of year comes when our boys visit non-league teams, sometimes bringing the chance to watch the Saddlers at a ‘new’ venue and offering the juxtaposition of one football world against another. While the Conference Premier – or whatever it’s called these days – is, strictly speaking, non-league it’s little other than the fifth tier of the Football League, being largely full-time professional and not non-league in the same way that the levels below it are. A good example of this came with the visit to Halesowen Town around this time last year, where the only way to be absolutely sure of who was playing was to try to get a look at the team sheet blu-tacked to the club shop window before someone pinched it. The sheet that is, not the window. No announcements, nothing, this being due – as we were informed at half-time – to the fact that they hadn’t been able to find the club microphone during the first half. No doubt a member of staff had put it somewhere safe ‘so we'll know where it is’. How often do you walk into a professional team’s ground where the first person you see is the raffle ticket seller? When going to a game at Newport on the Isle Of Wight I saw a steward hand over his club badge to someone who’d just been told they’d sold out, the steward also refused payment.

Going to see your team play at a non-league ground at this time of year gives a glimpse into attitudes that have long since disappeared from the professional game and this can go some way to restoring your faith in what was once a sport that virtually anyone could afford to partake in. Once the serious stuff starts things become a lot more cut-throat and a lot less fun much of the time so that’s why I'm particularly looking forward to the games at Leamington and Chasetown over the next couple of weeks. Sadly, I was not able to make Wednesday night’s game at Taunton. While it would, of course, have been nice to see the Saddlers triumph I’ll be trying to enjoy the games for their own sake before the torture begins all over again.

By: Hillary Street-Ender.
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