Non-league football. The only real reminder of what football once was before all the foreign investment and the constant pricing-out of fans who simply cannot afford to watch the team they love on a weekly basis. Cheap entry prices, volunteers helping out behind the bar or acting as matchday stewards, and every fan knowing the chairman on a personal basis. This is exactly what football should be, yet so many people disregard it.
I’ve been following Wroxham FC for three years, and on the final day of the season, witnessed their first promotion since 2012 to the fourth step of non-league.
Wroxham are a standard lower-tier non-league club. Volunteers pour pints and cook burgers behind the bar, with a stadium right next to the Norfolk Broads with a capacity of 2000, and an entry fee that Manchester City probably charges for a cremated Pukka pie. The club also has fantastic links with Norwich City, with Chris Sutton’s son, Ollie, as the club captain and goalkeeper, Darren Huckerby’s son, Tom, playing in defence, and even Norwich City legend Grant Holt playing every now and again. Yet, despite all these great links, there is only a small minority of Norwich fans who have actually watched Wroxham, let alone know about them. This seems the case for many non-league sides, and it is no wonder these clubs are desperate for a good turnout, just to give them some income to stay afloat for a season.
In the three years of watching The Yachtsmen, I also saw the rise of the club’s “family-friendly ultras”, which they call “The Blue Wave” and to say they’re good fun is an understatement. From duck whistles to megaphones, to drums, you name it, they probably have it. The club and players appreciate this support, as it must have made a huge difference from playing in complete silence with the odd applause from a couple of supporters after a goal. Following the club, both home and away as part of “The Blue Wave” really emphasised to me just how fascinating it is to follow your local club, and when I asked what a promotion meant to them and the club as a whole, the positivity was overwhelming. If every club at Wroxham’s level had this type of support, there’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have seen many clubs entering administration or ceasing to exist.
One of the supporters said: “We just can’t wait for the awaydays! Lowestoft, Stowmarket, our title rivals Gorleston, we’re going to bring the noise in a way we’ve never done before. We’re ready to put Wroxham on the map, and continue supporting (Jordan) Southgate and the boys until our bodies won’t let us anymore!
“It’s incredible, the journey we’ve been on with this great club. From the very first game against Baldock Town in the FA Vase all the way back in October 2019 where there was only five of us, it just keeps getting better and better. Hopefully, this promotion brings some great memories and we encourage more people from Norfolk to support one of the friendliest and most welcoming clubs we’ve ever experienced. I find it hilarious that despite following the club for three years, this is the first season we’ve seen completed!”
On the final day of the season, “The Blue Wave” took every opportunity imaginable to provide the players with an atmosphere they would never forget. The Yachtsmen fans formed a sea of blue with flares and smoke bombs in the stands, which would have made you feel like you were watching a Europa Conference league qualifier in Cyprus. Something I’ve never seen before at a non-league game, let alone in the top four leagues of English football.
When I asked members of “The Blue Wave” about their favourite memories of the club, I got assorted replies, but one game always seemed to stand out. One supporter, like many others, said: “We’ll always remember Stowmarket in the FA Vase in February 2020.
“That was, without a doubt, the best game I think we’ll ever witness watching Wroxham. Unless we win the Vase! Or maybe if we ever get into the National League and get to play some truly historic clubs like Notts County or the near-name Derby with Wrexham.”
Over 1000 people went to that game against Stowmarket, including myself. It was almost a record attendance for Trafford Park, one that hadn’t been seen in a decade. It was the best atmosphere I’d ever seen at a non-league game. The ground was absolutely packed that day, exactly what every non-league side at a similar level to Wroxham would dream of. From ticket sales alone, Wroxham made over £8000. That money was probably enough to allow the club to stay afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while some other non-league sides had to say goodbye to hundreds of years of footballing history. Imagine if you supported that club your whole life, and one day, they’re no longer around. What do you do in that situation? What about the players? Their job just goes, and they have to deal with it and move on. That should never happen. If we all choose to support our local team and contribute whatever money we can to them, then the core foundation of football can continue.
Wroxham’s promotion to step four of non-league could see them placed in the same league as one of the country’s best known non-league sides Hashtag United. Founded by YouTuber Spencer Owen, they have significant media coverage and promotion alongside a big following throughout the country. This has evidently encouraged people to acknowledge non-league football and to support and watch a side local to them, not only in the stands but financially just by showing up and purchasing a match ticket for a few quid.
That’s exactly why grassroots needs our support. The funding required to keep a football club alive for a season is immense, and if a side is unable to attract members of the public to provide matchday revenue, then they stand no chance. The FA has got to do more to help non-league sides survive. Otherwise, football will simply remain as just the elite sides and barely anyone will actually support their local side, and they will cease to exist.
That’s where the footballing public has to take action. If the majority of clubs could have any support that resembles Wroxham’s then there’s no doubt non-league would have significantly more relevance. For instance, Wroxham always post clips of the Blue Wave support from their fixtures, therefore, giving the fan group social media coverage. This then reaches many fans local to the club who will surely think of going to see it for themselves and encouraging friends to go with them for a cheap day out and witness a level of support they may never have seen in person before. Now just imagine if that was a common occurrence in non-league. The attendance numbers would be up, clubs would have a bigger reputation in their local community, and most importantly people would actually know they exist. If we as football fans come together and support our local club, football as we know it could be saved and there would still be clubs who acknowledge every fan and their community instead of just one post on Twitter saying ‘thanks for your support’.