BBC News

'Unbelievable' demand for tickets at non-league football games

By Oli Constable & Tom Airey
BBC News

image copyrightSteve Broughton
image captionWakefield AFC have been playing at Featherstone Rovers' ground, so supporters can easily follow social distancing rules

Some non-league football clubs have been reporting "unbelievable" demand for tickets while fans remain banned from higher-level games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Teams in the top six tiers of English football still have to play behind closed doors but those below can have up to 30% of their capacity attending.

A West Yorkshire side said fans had travelled from Liverpool, Manchester and Lincolnshire for a recent fixture.

One club said it thought the interest stemmed from football being like a "Class A drug" for many supporters.

In September, a number of games in the English Football League were attended by supporters - the only competitive matches at a professional level played in front of crowds in England since lockdown began in March - but that pilot scheme was abandoned as a result of rising infections.

image copyrightMark Leighton
image captionNorth Ferriby FC only formed in 2019, but their last four games in a row have been sell-outs

The void left by the lack of opportunity to attend league games has created an opportunity for clubs such as North Ferriby FC.

"Recent demand for tickets has been quite unbelievable, we've sold out six home games on the trot now," Jack Salt, the club's media manager, said.

The club can only sell enough tickets to fill 30% of the ground's capacity - but those have been selling quickly.

"Our game against Winterton Rangers sold out in 15 minutes. For a club like ours and the level we're at it is quite unbelievable," Mr Salt said,

He put the recent interest down to fans of Hull City, based just six-and-a-half miles away, not being able to watch their side and making the journey to see North Ferriby instead.

'We all celebrate in the same way'

Hallam FC in Sheffield has seen a similar demand for tickets, with the 300 allocation for a recent game against Worsborough Bridge AFC selling out in 11 minutes. The club averaged about 200 fans for matches last season.

"Football is like a Class A drug," said Ian Jones, who fills a number of roles for the club, including being its programme editor and Covid compliance officer.

"No matter who you support up and down the country, we all celebrate in the same way. It's the best feeling in the world."

He said if the club had not had restrictions on its attendances, up to 1,000 people could have been watching Hallam, based on the demand seen.

However, the club has had to cancel sell-out matches because of positive coronavirus cases.

image copyrightIsaac Parkin
image captionHallam FC play at Sandygate, the world's oldest football ground

Among Hallam's new supporters has been 21-year-old Sheffield Wednesday season ticket holder Nathan Moss.

"Since all this happened, me and my mates thought it was a good chance to go to grounds that you wouldn't normally go to," he said.

"I know loads of people who are going now. I've been to 13 non-league games so far this season because Wednesday aren't allowing fans in."

That new interest has been good news for clubs such as Gainsborough Trinity, which has one of the biggest allowable attendances at 600 supporters.

Club officials said they would usually be lucky to get 200 supporters watching on a Tuesday night.

Now, they have found themselves selling 500 tickets.

image copyrightKLS Photography
image captionA community feel to non-league football has attracted supporters, the chairman of Gainsborough Trinity has said

"People are looking to get out and do something," chairman Richard Kane said.

"People are craving for a bit of normality and to be able to watch a match with a few mates, have a couple of pints."

He said a large number of Sheffield United supporters lived in Gainsborough and fans wanted to help out a local club.

"If I put a message on social media saying 'can I get some people down to fork the pitch otherwise the game will be off?', I bet I'll get 50 people turn up because there's a community feel to it," Mr Kane said.

'Massive difference'

Larger than usual crowds have had a big impact for players too.

In Bedfordshire, Leighton Town have seen their attendances double.

"I'm used to playing away games with 20 or 30 people," central defender David Murphy, who teaches at a a local school, said.

"To have it in the hundreds just makes a massive difference to the atmosphere. You're not just playing for yourselves, you're playing for the crowd as well.

"In our league, all the footballers there wanted to be professional footballers. This is as close as we're going to get to it."

image copyrightDarren Murphy
image captionBrighouse Town have seen their attendances increase to 400 supporters, up from 260 on average last season

In West Yorkshire, Brighouse Town have seen an influx of Leeds United and Huddersfield Town supporters.

Despite being bottom of the eighth tier of football, media manager Damian Wales said the club has been well supported with 400 supporters turning up for games.

"The first game we were allowed fans back in we had to write down people's details for test and trace," he said.

"There were 'groundhoppers' coming from Liverpool, Chorley, Manchester, Lincolnshire. They just wanted to see a live game of football.

"People haven't been able to see their normal team so instead of getting a season ticket with them, they've bought a season ticket with us.

"You can get a hot dog at Brighouse for £1.50, if you go to Huddersfield Town you'll be paying £4.50, so it's a huge price difference."

'It's their Wembley'

Newly-formed club Wakefield AFC said most teams in their division usually got no crowds at all.

The team plays in the bottom level of the English football pyramid, in the Sheffield and Hallamshire County Senior League.

Mike Hegarty, chief executive of the group that founded Wakefield AFC, said the club was selling out matches while it used Featherstone Rovers' 10,000-capacity ground while rugby league matches were yet to restart.

He said: "It's unreal. Even the teams we play against, that have been around for many years, it's their Wembley.

"They're coming to a professional stadium to play. Last week, we played on an open field on the top of a hill in Huddersfield."

image copyrightNathan Moss
image captionHallam FC says it could sell 1,000 tickets if it didn't have a cap on attendances

Many of those involved hope when restrictions become lifted and crowds allowed again at elite levels, some fans would continue to support non-league sides.

Among those voicing that hope was Sheffield Wednesday fan Nathan Moss.

"I'll keep going to games, especially if Wednesday aren't playing during the week," he said.

"The grounds are different, obviously cheaper, and the days out are just as good really.

"But it is different, 5,000 people in an away end, you can't beat that. I'd do anything to be back at Hillsborough right now."

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