Can a non-league club lose its soul?

Hampton’s time in the playoffs came to an end this weekend at Ebbsfleet Utd. Given as how the club was given its place in the playoffs by the ground standards of others, I guess that’s no real surprise.

However, the reaction of some of the Ebbsfleet supporters on social media after the match set my teeth on edge on and also set me thinking.

One poster said that Hampton were ‘lucky to be on the same pitch as Ebbsfleet’

Now on one level, there’s a lot of truth in that, because they weren’t necessarily there on merit. On another level, it seems an extraordinarily condescending and arrogant thing to say. 

It’s no secret that Ebbsfleet are a well-backed club, and their weekly wage bill is probably between 4 and 5 times what Hampton’s is. In addition, it has always had a name recognition beyond Hampton’s because of their current backing and history, and the 2,100 in Stonebridge Road reflect that although compared to the 1,700 that watched the first leg, that’s a poor crowd.

Some clubs, when backed, manage to retain the essence of what they are, through their history. To my mind, they are not many and before long, the supporters succumb to what I’m now calling ‘Big-club syndrome’.

Having been in and around non-league football for a while now, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting clubs big and small. Small clubs who have ambition, those who look to do well in Cup competitions and those who just hope to survive.

In many respects, they are often the most enjoyable of places to visit, as they know who they are and don’t forget where they are from. There’s an intimacy amongst the supporters and volunteers and it’s like a close-knit family that meets every so often. A number of the supporters have given up on the professional game and have found enjoyment and a sense of belonging you don’t get with following a bigger club.

However, it seems to me that as soon and a club has money to spare, expectations on the terraces rise to match and in the end, these supporters forget their background and their roots, and that intimacy is lost.

For example, it’s not that long ago that Ebbsfleet were plain old Gravesend & Northfleet and had average crowds of between 500-800 every home game. Now they’re a massively ambitious club with a wage budget to match, but is that necessarily a good thing?

There’s a sense now that promotion to a higher level is demanded, rather than expected, and failure is not an option. To me, that’s a symptom of ‘Big-club syndrome’.

No question of the fact that Hampton were the smallest of the 4 clubs in the playoffs, but given the footprints of the other three, Ebbsfleet, Chelmsford and Dartford, I know who I’d rather support. 

I’m not saying that non-league clubs shouldn’t be ambitious, far from it, but at the price of that intimacy that we all enjoy in non-league, well, is it worth it? I’m not sure myself.

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3 thoughts on “Can a non-league club lose its soul?

  1. Well put Rob. Progress through the pyramid requires constant revolution of players, staff and facilities which all =£££.
    Meaning either prices rise or crowds need to increase, pulled in by better match day facilities or performances from better (higher paid players).
    Risk is that club gets promotion but loses the identity that attracted the original fans. A few poor seasons & back to square 1 with less fans.

    After a couple of seasons following Hampton with my son, what brings us back each week is the feeling part of something, a community feel. We feel that in a small way our following is important to the club and people say hello, staff, players etc.
    As a lifelong Man Utd fan from afar, the opportunity to ‘belong’ to my local club and form tangible relationships with players is something that my 10 year old and I both value.
    Whilst I was disappointed to be knocked out the play offs, I’m pleased that the club I’ve fallen in love with won’t have to reinvent itself in order to be successfully on the field and financially in the next tier.
    We’ll be back with our season tickets next year and look forward to seeing and speaking to some familiar faces when pre-season starts.

  2. Having read the original offending tweet, I do think the quote at the start is taken out of context. He also said you’re lucky to make the playoffs, which you were because you didn’t get enough points, and ‘lucky to be on the same pitch as #eufc’ may look arrogant out of context but read with the original tweet I see the point he was trying to make, it wasn’t a ‘big club syndrome’ point but more the point of you’re lucky to be playing in the playoffs with the number of points you had.

    Ebbsfleet United still retains it’s humble community feel, even when the owners are developing all of our treasured parts of the ground. The owners may be different, the money may be plentiful, but whenever I go it feels exactly the same to me with the fans and the spirit and nothing can take that away. We too have the close-knit family feel that you feel and we still very much have the ‘essence of what [we] are’

    We have always had decent crowd sizes regardless of money and will always feel like we are a strong club Conference South whenever we are in it.

    Best of luck next season

    1. Hannah, I do make comment about the fact that it wasn’t a position we had earned. At the time it was made, I sort of understood what was meant by the original tweet but when reflecting about it later, the other meaning struck me. The point I was making about ‘big clubs’ not necessarily Ebbsfleet, still holds true in that the further up the pyramid a club goes, the less it seems like the original club that attracted the support. Anyhow, and in the nicest possible way, hope we don’t see you next season!

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