I read an article in the Non-League Paper this weekend that got my creative juices flowing. A reader had messaged the paper to claim that Lincoln City were ‘not a non-league club’, as we are full time with big support and a decent budget. As much as I’d like to agree him I can’t, because he’s wrong.
Usually I will try and debate any positive angle I can when Lincoln City is the subject, but I’m afraid that isn’t possible here. To claim Lincoln City are not a non-league club based on the fact we’re full time with a big ground and a growing fan base is crazy. Those things do not make a league club, the one pertinent thing that is being forgotten is that we currently play outside of the Football League.
The non-league scene of today is very different from when we first experienced it back in 1987/88. That was my second season as a young fan, and the atmosphere was horrible. We were hated by everyone we came across, bar perhaps Fisher Athletic. We were punched, kicked and abused by clubs up and down the country: don’t get me wrong we gave as good as we got. Those were proper non-league teams though, all part time and making up with aggression what they gave up in facilities and finesse.
Fast forward 30 years and the National League is a very different place. Nowadays we’re as likely to meet a team whom we have played in League Football as we are a new face. The top seven or eight sides in the National League would comfortably hold their own in League Two, and some of the budgets wouldn’t look out of place in League One. Some teams still have dubious game plans (no surprise to see Sutton near the foot of the fair play league), but by and large they are all decent teams. A large majority are full time, and we are by no means the ‘biggest’ in terms of potential crowds.
It doesn’t matter that our fixture list includes games against Tranmere, York and Wrexham. They may have been staples of our fixture list for many years, but they are now non-league sides as well. The description of ‘non-league’ doesn’t just apply to part timers, those with artificial grass and teams you’ve never heard of: it applies to anyone playing below the Football League. If we weren’t here we’d be competing for three promotion spots and a further four play-off spots. We’d e virtually assured our place in the end of season lottery already. We’re not.
The term non-league has not changed, but the level of football it describes has. Now, more than ever, the fifth tier is a competitive league where often the sides competing are as good as their lower Football League counterparts. Even below us sides like AFC Fylde are ambitious, craving a stab at the Football League and fully set up to become the next Morecambe, the next Burton Albion or the next Fleetwood. The level of ability, the financial means of the participants and the exposure nationally may well have changed since 1988, but the fact this division is not Football League remains the same.
As for us, we just want our so-called ‘proper’ place in the Football League back, the place we feel our history justifies. History doesn’t impact the current situation though, so until we get back to where we ‘belong’ it is disrespectful to teams such as Maidstone and North Ferriby to try and label us as anything other than non-league. Sadly, we earned our place in this league, and those teams rightfully earned there spot too, and that’s why were exactly the same as they are, a non-league team.