JUST HOW BIG IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROFESSIONAL AND NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALL?

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Mind the Gap:

I am mindful that, potentially, this is a controversial topic for my first blog entry, not least because it’s currently Valentine’s Day and I suspect my wife probably thinks that I should be pondering other matters in life other than the technical deficiencies, and improbable career, of Jonathon Spector. That notwithstanding, here we are. Almost inevitably, there will be a crowd of people who disagree wholeheartedly with the main crux of this post. So let me start by saying as my disclaimer, that I am acutely aware that there is an enormously wide spectrum of abilities, both within the professional game and at the grassroots level.

I am not, for one second proposing that there is no difference in ability whatsoever between David Silva and Dave from ‘down the pub’, in the same way, that I appreciate there is a difference between the abilities of Joe Cole and Carlton Cole in the pro game. One may have achieved 56 caps for England and scored in World Cups, whilst the other got outclassed by Ralf Little on Soccer AM recently; however they ultimately both managed to make a career playing football for a living which is considerably more than most of us have achieved.

I am arguing, however, that for the lower tiers of the English Football League and the upper echelons of the Non-League pyramid, the differences are surprisingly marginal. Players are only one sliding door away from making a career earning good money as a full-time athlete, signing autographs, and playing in front of thousands of supporters every week, to making the squad for Ramsgate away on a Tuesday night, for expenses.

that barely cover your own petrol costs; in front of the proverbial one man and his dog.

In my fledgling coaching career, I have been fortunate enough to work in close proximity to a range of amateur and professional footballers from League 2 standard to the Premier League, right up to Champions League Level when I trained the sons of Italian legends like Antonio Cassano, Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Barzagli during a summer school on behalf of Chelsea FC in Sardinia, 2016. In the afternoon we’d coach the kids, which also included the offspring of Juventus manager Massimo Allegri, Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne and World Cup Winner Fabio Grosso among others. And at night the whole resort would come out to watch the ‘parents’ and coaches play 9-aside. It was a surreal experience, the players were sharper than me, quicker, stronger, more athletic and more aggressive. They played predominantly 1 & 2 touch and I must admit they certainly moved the ball at a much more frenetic pace to what I was accustomed to in the Mid-Sussex league. They played with typical Italian flair and passion. Minor skirmishes broke out intermittently, and unsurprisingly Antonio Cassano was usually the main protagonist (I tried my best to stay well out of the way of ‘La Cassanata’). The matches were so competitive that every decision was contested. The referee, who was very much playing the part of pantomime villain much to the crowd’s entertainment, was getting abuse from all avenues. There were players from Roma, Napoli, Juventus and Lazio all represented and I guess the winning mentality instilled within a professional athlete, combined with old Serie A rivalries too heavily ingrained in the sub-conscience, were not easy to forget for 60 minutes.

I remember clattering into £30m man, Miralim Pjanic, giving away a penalty and seeing 500 pairs of eyes staring at me with unadulterated rage. “Idiota, Idiota!”. I don’t speak fluent Italian but I suspect they weren’t saying ‘great challenge mate’.

Nevertheless, this bizarre and unique experience gave me a small insight into what it would be like to train and play to an elite level intensity everyday. I became friendly with Republic of Ireland international Stephen Ward and his young family during my stay in Sardinia. He also played alongside me in these exhibition matches and appeared just as excited as I was to share the turf with some living legends and to see what they were actually like up close and personal. It occurred to me that even in the pro game there are levels within levels; this man had 50 caps for his country after all but his humility was admirable. The aspects that separated one player to the next were probably not what you’d assume we’d be debating in the hotel bar. Ward could strike the ball as well as any of them. They could all bring the ball down with a delicate first touch. They passed the ball with unerring accuracy. However, in terms of individual technical actions, did I see anything I haven’t seen a million times on the training field at home? If I’m being totally honest, probably not. From a personal point of view, was I out of my depth? Yes, of course. But would I feel anymore out of my depth attending a training session at South Shields, Billericay or Hastings Utd? But what does separate these international superstars from those plying their trade in the BetVictor? For me, 5 things above all else – physicality, mentality, consistency, luck and opportunity. But in terms of actual playing ability, I have played with, coached, and watched players right across non-league football pyramid, with equal, and often superior, technical footballing attributes to many professionals I’ve seen. There, I’ve said it.

After being released (quite astutely) from an academy myself in my younger years I also went on to have a long playing career, largely at Step 5 within the Amateur football league system, and retired in 2019 to pursue my coaching. As a result, I’ve seen players right across the football spectrum. I have seen brilliant non-league players that have taken my breath away with astonishing skill and ability. I have also seen players at this level that couldn’t trap a bag of cement. But likewise, at the top level I often find myself gobsmacked by greatness and mystified by mediocrity, almost in equal measure. A sentiment which I’m sure will resonate with any fellow West Ham supporters reading this post. Of course, it is easy to criticise from your armchair positions and fantasise that – you too, could have made it if it wasn’t for the ‘dodgy knees’. But I’m starting to wonder why, for some of the genuinely more talented players in non-league football, it just never quite seemed to happen for them?

I saw a goal recently, scored by Rob O’Toole for Horsham FC, a prolific marksman at non-league level, currently plying his trade in the BetVictor South Premier Division (Step 3). O’Toole executed an acrobatic overhead kick so sweetly that it went viral with over ½ a million views across various social media platforms.

A spectacular one-off fluke you might think? But the truth is you can see moments of magic like this in non-league football almost every weekend, the only difference is that, thanks to companies like yourinstantreplay, the video footage that was previously reserved almost exclusively for top flight games is now starting to capture some of these wonderful moments of skill and technique lower down the leagues too. Consequently, clubs are starting to take notice of the amateur players showcasing their talents throughout grassroots. In years gone by, O’Toole’s goal and many other great pieces of skill at this standard, would have been been put down as pub talk hyperbole; more myth than majesty. But I am delighted that this is no longer the case because it corroborates what I have been saying for many years now which is that some of the goals and individual pieces of skill you can witness in amateur football are as good as, and in some case vastly superior to, anything you’ll see on Match of The Day. Could Jozy Altidore score this goal? If the answer is no [it is], then surely we have to consider the other characteristics that elevate one to “pro” status and how Altidore and many other examples managed to get their shot at the big-time at the expense of technically more gifted lower league gems?

My first suspicions that the gap between the pro and amateur divisions may not be as vast as I’d once assumed came back in 2013, when my team, Newhaven FC, drew Crawley Town in the Sussex Senior Cup. Although we eventually went down in the tie 1-0, my over riding feeling of the experience was one of anti-climatic disappointment. Crawley fielded no fewer than 7 players in their starting 11 that day who featured in their League 2 fixture against Doncaster Rovers the following weekend. Now, I get that, for us, this was a huge occasion, like a cup final, something to tell the grandkids about perhaps (or at least something to blog about in 7 years time). Whereas for the Crawley Town players, a trip to Fort Road was hardly going to rank among their most memorable footballing moments – certainly not for the right reasons. So, from a motivational point of view you could argue that perhaps they coasted the match in 1st gear all the way to a comfortable 1-0 victory. Nevertheless, I am not lamenting them for their lack of drive and vigour. I am however analysing this experience purely from a technical point of view and from what I witnessed first hand, I was very surprised by the number of mistakes they made; the poor touches; the misplaced passes; and wayward shots. Put simply – I expected more. Ultimately, if a professional footballer’s goal attempt ends up closer to Newhaven Fort than the back of the Newhaven net, we can’t simply put this down to a lack of effort can we? They are surely trying their best to execute that action, at that precise moment in time, to the best of their ability, right? It would be unreasonable to expect every attempt to hit the stanchion of course but in what other sporting contest would you see the consistent errors of a professional and an amateur so closely aligned? I have to say that to call this experience underwhelming would be generous. However, that was precisely what I felt that day and it changed my perspective completely.

I think it’s easy to assume, when players make mistakes in the Premier League that it’s all relative because they are playing against ‘better’ players. But when you see these so called ‘better’ players playing against so called ‘worse’ players first hand, you do start to question if they are indeed that much better after all.

Another case in point is the Chichester City FA Cup run this season. Their 2nd round match, shown live on BT Sport against Tranmere Rovers, demonstrated once again the surprising parity between teams separated by multiple tiers. Firstly, it should be noted what an extraordinary achievement it was to reach the 2nd round to begin with, for a team made up primarily of university graduates, that were competing in the Sussex County League only the season before. Chichester train twice a week and work full time jobs, yet they managed to not only match, but outplay their professional league counterparts for the best part of an hour. In fact, nothing separated the teams until Corey Blackett-Taylor, an England U17 international that has played in the Championship with Aston Villa, scored against the run of play before the floodgates started to open. This is only one recent example of a David vs Goliath style FA Cup tie but we have witnessed hundreds over the years in which the minnows have triumphed. In this example, the physical superiority of Tranmere eventually took its toll. Nevertheless, your average non-league player does not have access to the means which facilitate superior physical prowess; full-time training, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, physiotherapists, sleep specialists, and so on. Therefore, are these matches really even a fair test of footballing ability? If they did have such provision in place, how much smaller would the gap
become?

It seems the trick is not always being a professional footballer, but becoming one in the first place. If your average club golfer plays Rory McIlroy across 100 rounds, McIlroy wins 100 rounds of golf. The giant-killing phenomenon simply doesn’t exist in any other mainstream elite sport in the same manner that we see with such regularity in association football. We no longer fear the underdog story, we expect it.

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