Non-League Day, where every game truly matters

Game on: Anton Rippon used non-league day to enjoy a game at a ground he has not visited in decades
Game on: Anton Rippon used non-league day to enjoy a game at a ground he has not visited in six decades

Non-League Day 2014 was widely acclaimed as a success.

Here, ANTON RIPPON, pictured, suggests why after enjoying a rare outing to Spalding

“Excuse me,” said the woman in the stand at the Sir Halley Stewart Playing Field.

“It says here in the programme that it’s Non-League Day. Does that mean that this match doesn’t count?”

It was then that I realised that the term “non-league” can be confusing to someone who doesn’t follow football. When I tried to explain that it meant non-Premier League and non-Football League, the woman still looked puzzled.

“But why doesn’t it say that, then? This is a league game that we’re watching now. If it says it’s non-league, then it sounds as if it isn’t.”

Still less than convinced that I knew what I was talking about, she settled down to sending text messages while the small boy that she was accompanying kicked every ball and headed every corner, and started an argument with me over whether a foul had been committed inside or outside the Spalding United penalty area.

The last time I’d watched a game of football on this ground was 57 years ago. I spent every school summer holiday at my paternal grandmother’s home in the fenland town famous for its tulips – hence the nickname of the local football club – and United then played in the Eastern Counties League against, among others, Tottenham Hotspur “A” team.

As far as I recall, the quality of the football was quite good. Indeed, Spalding signed a centre forward called Ronnie Codd, whose main claim to fame was that he’d once stood in for the injured Nat Lofthouse at Bolton. Codd later played for Barrow and fellow SJA member James Mossop remembers him with affection from those Holker Street days.

Attendances were usually around the 1,000-mark, but when the Tulips met Peterborough United – who in those days walked away with the Midland League every season – almost 7,000 people squashed themselves into what was then known as the Black Swan Field.

On Saturday the official attendance was 159, and when I went to make my way on to the ground through the carriage arch at the side of the Black Swan pub, I found my way barred by an Iceland store.

Once I located the new entrance, four quid admission (£7 if you’re not a “concession”) got me the free run of the ground, including the grandstand. But not before an affable member of the supporters’ club had sold me a raffle ticket, and an equally nice woman – who ran the club “shop” laid out on a trestle table near the touchline – had relieved me of a few pounds more for a programme, a fridge magnet and small pennant.

There was the Tulip Snack Bar, a small clubhouse, and possibly the noisiest public address in the world, over which was played a selection of 1980s “classics”. The PA announcer sounded like a cross between Sir David Frost and that chap who used to introduce the boxers on Sky’s Fight Night. The Press “facility” was a small shelf.

The teams walked out to the signature tune of Match of the Day, limbered up to “Singing the Blues” (not the Guy Mitchell version) and Spalding celebrated every one of their five EvoStik Northern Premier League First Division South goals against 10-man Kidsgrove Athletic with a rousing rendition of “Blue Moon”.

At half-time there was something called a “bucket collection” but, alas, I hadn’t taken a bucket and so couldn’t contribute.

The standard of football wasn’t as high as I remember it, but the whole experience added up to a cracking non-League day at a lovely , friendly club. Even if that lady went away still thinking that it hadn’t counted.


Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms