“Nowadays, as a regular follower of Wingate & Finchley (above) of the Isthmian League, I find myself offering an almost apologetic justification when asked who I support, followed by a pre-emptive ‘you probably wouldn’t have heard of them'”, writes When Saturday Comes’ Mike Bayly of his choice to root for a club mired in 16th place in a league several divisions below the Football League’s old 4th. “Usually I’m right,” he adds, while adding in somewhat wishful tone, ‘In a commercially driven age where the British football supporter appears increasingly homogenised and brand driven, it is sometimes the fan of the top-flight club being asked who their ‘real’ team is.”
Declaring these loyalties to smaller clubs is like a high-stakes card game. Supporters are often faced with a deal or bust decision: stick to your guns and hope for the best or choose a big side with tenuous connections and suppress feelings of desertion and treachery. Non-League devotees often lead a duplicitous life, where who they say they support and who they actually support can be two vastly different things.
To cite an example, a Stourbridge-supporting acquaintance of mine wrestled with this conundrum on starting a new job in Birmingham. Having never had an affiliation to a “big” team, he mulled over replying “West Brom” or “Aston Villa” if anyone asked, as he would “feel a bit silly saying Stourbridge”. Further afield, a seasoned follower of Halifax Town I know resorted to saying “Leeds United” when asked the question abroad, to avoid the inevitable looks of confusion.
On the other hand, there are distinct advantages to following clubs at this level of the pyramid. Non-League paraphernalia are like magic amulets. I was challenged on the Tube once about the claret and blue scarf round my neck. Once I had revealed that it was emblazoned with “Colwyn Bay FC”, the demeanour of my would-be assailant changed and he threw in a congratulatory “good for you”, as if addressing someone recovering from a critical disease.