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Page last updated at 14:00 GMT, Monday, 6 September 2010 15:00 UK

Non-league football day proves a big hit with fans

By Chris Charles

Maidenhead v Bromley (picture David Dickson)
Action from the Maidenhead-Bromley game in the Blue Square Bet South

"Premier League? You're having a laugh!"

A popular chant at football grounds around the country - and the mantra adopted by thousands of fans at the weekend as they swapped the glitz and glamour of life at the top table for the more earthy surroundings of their local non-league outfit.

With a full international programme of football forcing the postponement of Premier League and Championship fixtures, supporters were encouraged to abandon plans for shopping and DIY and spend the afternoon observing how the other half live.

And they turned out in their droves, with many clubs reporting a significant increase in crowd numbers, and several enjoying their highest gate of the season.

The scheme, called simply 'Non League Day', was the brainchild of my BBC colleague and fellow-QPR fan James Doe - whose tireless efforts brought to mind the phrase 'mighty oaks from little acorns grow', as a speculative Facebook message turned into a national campaign.

James, 35, explained: "It all started when I went on QPR's pre-season tour of Devon. The first game was against Tavistock of the South West Penisular Football League and I was struck by the relaxed atmosphere and the friendliness of the local people, who bent over backwards to make us feel welcome.

"It was also obvious how important it was financially to them and I was reminded of a visit to my local club Harrow Borough a year earlier, where I was shocked to find they were having a fund-raising drive to raise money for new floodlight bulbs - I hadn't realised funds were quite that tight.

"When I saw there was a blank weekend for the top two divisions coming up - and that England's game with Bulgaria had been switched to the Friday - I realised there was an opportunity to persuade fans of those bigger clubs to check out their local non-league side instead.

James Doe

"I set up a Facebook event and invited a few friends who were into football. They then sent it on to their friends and it began to snowball, with the BBC's Non-League Show coming on board to give the campaign some credibility.

"I also created a Twitter account to maximise the social media opportunities and within days I was getting calls to appear on radio stations up and down the country, which resulted in the commercial manager at Wingate & Finchley, Mike Bayly, offering to set up the website at his own expense."

And the interest did not end there. The event became a trending topic on Twitter, while national newspapers including the Mirror, the Guardian and the Times all picked up on the story, together with a host of official and non-official football club websites.

Indeed, Charlton Athletic, despite having a game in League One on Saturday, encouraged fans who didn't fancy the trip down to Exeter, to go and watch a non-league team closer to home. Pertinent advice as it turned out, with die-hard Addicks enduring a 325-mile round trip to see their side lose 1-0.

Among the success stories of Saturday were tiny Norfolk club Dereham Town, whose FA Vase contest with Kings Lynn Town attracted 689 fans, 506 up on their previous season's best of 183.

Craig Smith, who attended the match, said afterwards: "Programmes were sold out an hour before the game, but they coped well with everything else!"

Meanwhile, Burnley fans on the 'Claretsmad' messageboard calculated they had seen 21 non-league games between them, with Tony Scholes's piece for the site saying: "It was an enjoyable day and one I'll definitely be repeating."

Elsewhere, a party of Scotland supporters stuck at Gatwick Airport after returning from Lithuania, took a diversion to go and watch nearby Crawley Town take on Fleetwood in the Blue Square Bet Premier, while a tweeter called DolphinHotel quoted a player from the Northern League's Birtley Town, who said: "It's the first time in Birtley's history we've had any fans."

John Terry
John Terry was among the fans at Eastbourne Borough

And the day was not just restricted to 'normal' football fans. Chelsea captain John Terry was among the spectators at Eastbourne Borough, where brother Paul's Darlington team were the visitors, while celebrated film director and passionate Bath City fan Ken Loach, gave an interview with BBC Bristol lending his support.

And BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce swapped the Match of the Day commentary booth for a seat at Lewes, even conducting the raffle at half-time.

As for campaign organiser James, he is already looking ahead to the next international break on 9 October, which coincides with the FA Cup third round qualifying.

He admitted: "I was amazed by the overall success of the weekend - it certainly seemed to capture the public's imagination. These teams depend on our support and it's good for people to realise there is life outside the Premier League."

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see also
Eastbourne Boro 1-1 Darlington
04 Sep 10 |  Non League
The Non League Show
15 Aug 11 |  TV and Radio
Support football's grass roots
01 Sep 10 |  People and Places
Blue Square Bet Premier guide
10 Aug 10 |  Non League

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