The grass roots of English football
Blinded by the glitz, glamour and gross revenue of the Premier League, it is easy to forget how deep football runs in the English community. Especially for fans who view it from afar.
This depth is by no means unique to the English footballing system. Nor, should it be argued, is this depth directly responsible for the many commercial and other successes of the Premier League. The Premier League is very much a league that, at least at the very highest levels, depends far more on imported players and talent than on home-grown quality.
Of course, there are great stories like that of Jamie Vardy, who, as recently as in 2010, was playing for FC Halifax Town in the seventh tier of English football. Six years later, he was lifting the Premier League trophy for Leicester City after a season that was nothing short of a sporting miracle.
While Vardy’s case is something of an exception, at least at the Premier League level, look one or two levels below and there are many more cases of players and managers working their way up the system and forging substantial careers at the Championship, League 1 and League 2 levels.
But how far down does the English football pyramid go?
Officially, the pyramid starts from the Premier League and goes all the way down 11 tiers. The first five of these tiers have a league each. There are two in the sixth tier—National League North and National League South—and then, from that point onwards, each tier has numerous leagues running in parallel. Below the 11 official tiers are another 11 or so unofficial leagues. And there are further tiers of amateur and “Sunday League” football teams.
Put this all together and you have a somewhat unbroken pyramid of football that spans something like 30 tiers. From teams like Manchester City, right at the pinnacle, to the team at your local pub that kicks a ball about on a minefield of a pitch on weekends.
What this means, of course, is that the avid footballer can always find some sort of organized football to be a part of almost anywhere in England. Somebody somewhere is going to need your talent.
But it also means that football fans are never too far away from an affordable football match to attend both on weekends or during the week.
Consider this writer’s situation. My nearest premiership football club is Crystal Palace FC aka the Eagles. And if I had booked tickets for the match against Stoke City—by no means a footballing extravaganza—on 25 November, I would have paid at least around £52 (around Rs4,510) for the tickets. And that is before the costs of actually getting there, getting a bite to eat, a pint to sip and so on.
No? No problem. My home is a 20-minute walk from the home of Bromley FC, aka the Ravens, in the National League, the fifth tier of English football. Tickets for the average match cost around £15 for adults. The club is easily reached by public transport, there is a great pub next to the ground, and the food and drink are most reasonably priced. All in all, two adults could easily spend an evening on a Bromley FC match for the price of a single ticket at the Crystal Palace FC.
Of course, the stadium is much smaller, and not all that much more sophisticated than a good university or college cricket ground in Mumbai. But the atmosphere is usually quite good, and the football is nothing to scoff at.
There can, of course, be some unexpected problems at this level. A few days ago, there was mild embarrassment at the Bromley ground after a power failure forced the postponement of a match against Aldershot Town FC. There was an electrician on site, the club clarified, but the electrical fault was far too severe for immediate repair. Twitter was rife with ridicule. But the match took place on the 28 November. And tickets for adults were just £10 each.
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