Non-league football is a fundamental part of English footballing culture. There are countless volunteers around the country who work tirelessly behind the scenes to keep these clubs alive.
From the groundskeepers who maintain the pitches, to the admission officers who sit in the turnstiles, these individuals are the backbone of the sport. Without them, non-league football would not be thriving how it is today.
I spoke to different clubs and explored the vital roles that volunteers play in the non-league football community and celebrate their dedication and hard work.
But first, so many clubs would not be able to run without the help of volunteers. These non-league football clubs typically have limited finances and rely heavily on the work of these people to keep the clubs running.
They play important roles to ensure their respected clubs can function. They also play a huge role in supporting players, coaches and management helping to create a positive and welcoming environment for everyone to get behind.
But just how many volunteers are there in non-league? There are over 57 leagues featuring a total of 84 divisions which creates our National League System. This ranges from leagues such as the Isthmian Premier Division at Step 3 level, to the Spartan Midlands Division Two at Step 7 level of the footballing pyramid.
Sarratt FC, a local club in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, pride themselves on being a community club for everyone, and these volunteers are the people who allow this club to run on a daily basis.
Tom Shurville, the chairman of Sarratt FC, speaks highly on how much volunteers help him maintain the club. “The reason our club is in the position it is today is because of our community.” Shurville said. “Everyone bought into our philosophy as a club, and that philosophy has helped us every step of the way to keep our position at Step 7 level, if it wasn’t for my team, we wouldn’t be here”
Sarratt FC recently celebrated their 100 year anniversary in 2019, and is just one of hundreds of clubs that have everyday people provide them with help, but just how much appreciation do these people get?
The work of volunteers in non-league football is often thankless, and many of these individuals do not receive any financial gain for their efforts. Despite this, volunteers continue to give their time and energy to the sport, motivated by a desire to support their local community and ensure that non-league football continues to thrive.
On the other hand, there are many clubs take to their social media pages to respect and show their appreciation for their volunteers every year. Clubs always advertise for volunteers for their upcoming seasons, and this season as it draws to a close, is no different.
These volunteers are not just your average person, many of these people are fans of the clubs they help, as it brings them closer to the team they love and support. It creates a family environment and gives people something to do almost every weekend.
Many volunteers I have spoke to over the years have echoed how much volunteering for their local club has helped them both physically and mentally.
Volunteering provides great ways to meet new people and create new friendships. Because of often being at the heart of the community, this gives people the chance to engage in the social aspects of clubs, which can be beneficial for someone’s mental health and well-being.
Studies have shown that volunteering can be a great way to combat loneliness and social isolation, providing individuals with a sense of purpose and belonging. This is why volunteering is so popular in non-league football, it provides people an escape to help express their passions and help them improve their mood.
Volunteers in non-league suffered one of the biggest challenges ever back in 2020, when the COVID-19 created scenarios that clubs had never faced before. Jim Wagner, former chairman of Mill End Sports, sadly had to fold the club back in 2021, after suffering financial issues because of the pandemic. Not only this, but over 10 volunteers were unable to continue their work with the club because of the restrictions.
“We couldn’t get back on our feet,” said Wagner. “We lost players, we lost the togetherness, and financially we could not withstand continuing, when you are paying money out of your own pocket to help fund your club with no gain, it puts yourself in a hard position.”
THE TRANSFORMATION: Mill End Sports FC team photo from 2019 in comparison to their cup final winning side in 2021.
The suspension of football matches during the COVID pandemic also had a significant impact on the volunteers who support non-league football clubs. Many volunteers were unable to carry out their normal tasks which meant that clubs had to rely on reduced numbers to maintain the club.
The impact of COVID-19 on non-league football showed people just how important the community support for grassroots football was. Non-league football clubs relied on funding from their local communities to survive during the pandemic.
Because the clubs were not gaining money from ticket sales or any other sources of match day income, many struggled. But, throughout the entirety of COVID, it was the volunteers that played a crucial role in maintaining the club's operations and ensuring these clubs stayed afloat.
Non-league football is crying out for major investments in both facilities and the the infrastructure of clubs. So many football clubs operate on tight budgets which make funding investments in facilities a significant challenge.
With the help of volunteers, clubs are able to use the funding that they do get, to improve their facilities which allows clubs to create systems such as youth and women’s systems to continue the legacy these clubs are creating.
Without volunteers, non-league would not exist how we know it today. It’s their hard work and dedication which allows us to enjoy the beautiful game, without spending loads of money on watching elite football every weekend. To those people, we say thank you, but there is still a long way to go to get where non-league should be.