They say love moves in mysterious ways and that it will find you when you least expect it. Well, I have certainly just experienced la liaison that fits both of those statements. It was exciting, it was fast and it had its tragic moment, but this brief encounter could spark into a full blown romance - a bond that will only grow stronger. This is the story of my Non-League love affair.
The first time I fell in love was around 1991 when I was taken on a journey down the Uxbridge Road from Shepherd's Bush tube station and seeing the bright floodlights in the distance, shining high above the terrace housing. The destination was Loftus Road and my first love was Queens Park Rangers.
When I turned 16 years old, QPR had just been relegated to the third-tier of English football for the first time since the 60s and my season ticket cost £88 for under 18's. I barely missed a game during our 3-year stint in Division Two (League One), but once we were promoted to the Championship I could not afford the hike in season ticket prices and have felt priced out as a supporter ever since, like many others.
The one constant about supporting QPR is Loftus Road and I could not imagine the club without it. Unfortunately, Non-League clubs don’t have it so lucky when it comes to keeping their own stadium. For instance, Hendon Football Club had finally returned 'home' last season, having lost their Claremont Road Stadium to property developers in 2008 after 82 years. Hendon played 'home' games at Northwood, Staines, Harrow Borough and Wembley FC since 2016 - a nomad existence, common in Non-League football - especially in London where financially vulnerable clubs sit on plots of gold (land).
The club nearly went out of existence in 2010 but was saved due to the Supporters Trust taking ownership. In 2016, Hendon FC returned to Hendon (West Hendon, to be exact) at Silver Jubilee Park - the former stadium of Kingsbury Town, who had merged with another club and moved to Greenford. Silver Jubilee Park was re-developed including a new 3G pitch that also serves the local community as well as it's new residents, Hendon FC and Edgware Town FC. The latter had folded in 2008 after their long-standing White Lion Ground was sold for housing and the club reformed in 2014.
The nearest tube station to SJP is Dollis Hill and only a few stops further north on the Jubilee Line, you'll find The Hive - Barnet Football Club's new stadium, 7 miles away from Barnet. Hendon FC were in fact rumoured to be moving to Barnet Copthall Stadium (now Allianz Park, Saracens RFC) in 2006, which never materialised.
During my childhood, I was often taken to watch Hendon play at Claremont Road when it did not clash with the R’s fixtures. The only real memory I have back then was the infamous Bog End.
I decided to make the final game of last season (2016/17) for Hendon, playing at home against Staines Town, where they needed at least a point to keep their long standing record of a place in the Isthmian Division. They drew 1-1 with last minute equaliser, sending Harrow Borough into the final relegation spot (although Borough were later reprieved).
The 2017/2018 Isthmian Premier League was a season full of character. The league winners, Billericay Town, are owned by Essex businessman Glenn Tamplin, who invested vast amounts of cash into the club and whose signings included the likes of Paul Konchesky, Jamie O'Hara and Jermaine Pennant. The club made the 'news' this season for their pre-match song ritual inspired by Tamplin. The owner, even assumed the manager's position mid-season only for him to sack himself after a run of poor form which climaxed at Silver Jubilee Park. In the 75th minute, Tamplin left the dugout, hopped over the railings and walked out of the ground, much to the jeers and laughter from the Hendon fans.
In total, I attended four games this season, the first was a 4-3 thrilling victory against Worthing, followed by a 3-0 demolition of Merstham. The Hendon FC manager, Gary McCann, has one of the smallest budgets in the division but has been able to create a fast, attacking and attractive style of football with also one of the youngest squads, which has an average age of just 23.
With the final two league games to go, Hendon sat in the middle of the play-off places and faced away trips to Leatherhead (just a point outside the play offs) and Leiston (just inside the play offs). The Greens secured 2-1 victories in both fixtures, and thanks to a last minute Jamie O'Hara screamer for Billericay Town at home to Folkstone Invicta, the Greens finished 3rd on goal difference, sending Folkestone into 4th. This was crucial, as the play-off semi-finals at this level are set up so that the two highest placed teams play at home in a single leg.
The semi-final against Folkstone Invicta was on a Thursday evening and the highest home attendance of the season (722). I have enjoyed visiting Hendon's new home for the ability to roam around the ground at any time. Sometimes, I would sit behind the goal in the Lawrence Stand, other times I would stand on the terrace near the dugout or the terrace behind the opposite goal. Standing at football has always been my preference and the fact I can drink (and vape) during the game, makes it even more of an enjoyable experience. In fact, during the Worthing game, I got speaking to the man in front of me as we were shouting encouragement to the boys in Green. It turns out it was Simon Lawrence, the Chairman of Hendon FC. You couldn’t do any of that sort of thing at one of the Premier League or Football League clubs, could you?
Hendon destroyed Folkstone in the first half, scoring 4 goals that could have easily been 7 or 8. The Invicta played a 3-5-2 formation that was easily exploited by Hendon's three attackers who remind me of Liverpool's famous trio this season. In particular, Niko Muir, has bagged 40 goals this season and his excellent form even attracted a trial offer from QPR. He's not just a goalscorer, with his ability to hit accurate through balls to fellow team-mates Josh Walker, Zak Joseph and Ashley Nathaniel-George - opening up the opposition defences consistently. It's key to point out here that, Gary McCann has been in charge of Hendon since 2005 and is the fourth longest serving manager in English football. The second is, in fact, the manager of Folkstone Invicta, Neil Cugely, who's just celebrated his 21st season and will become the longest-serving manager when Arsene Wenger hangs up his long zipper coat.
This semi-final fixture was my first evening game at SJP, and it was perfect. The larger crowd and good football encouraged songs from the terraces. From one end of the ground you have a view of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Kingsbury (Hindu Temple) in view at the top of the hill. From the other end, Wembley Stadium is lit up in full view over the Spring evening sunset.
The semi-final ended with a 4-0 victory to the Greens and focus now moved to Bank Holiday Monday where Hendon had earned a Play-Off Final against Dulwich Hamlet FC. The Hamlet had finished a mighty 10 points but one position above Hendon in the league on 95, only 4 points off big-spending champions Billericay. The game should have been played at Champion Hill, the home of DHFC, but once again property developers and land ownership shenanigans have caused them to become lodgers at local rivals, Tooting & Mitcham, who were relegated from the league this season.
The Hamlet has one of the biggest following support in Non-League football and the crowd of 3,321 for the play-off final broke the record attendance for the Imperial Ground. Behind one goal, the Dulwich Hamlet 'ultras' sang in unison, lighting pink and navy flairs as both teams took the field in the blistering sun. Behind the other goal, I stood with a majority of Hendon supporters, gradually finding its voice. The terracing was a throwback to the old style terraces of stadiums from yesteryear. I did fear that Hamlet's large support would be a huge disadvantage for Hendon in this final, but the 300 to 500 odd Green Army that made the trip down to South London sang in full voice.
Fellow Hendon fans around me all had their own backstory with a collective conclusion. One fan was a former Millwall season ticket holder, another used to be a Chelsea season ticket holder, whilst another fan followed Edgware Town and has since followed both clubs since their joint move to SJP. The conclusion was that Non-League football was better than attending a Premier League or even Football League game. The choice of drinking during a game, the ability to sit or stand where you want, the fact you know the players on the pitch all have 'real' jobs like yourself and are there to play football for the love of the game. It made me think that Non-League football is the football my generation, and older generations, grew up watching and loving. It's the only social class link left as more and more professional clubs continue to price out fans with lesser incomes.
Each Hendon game I attended, including the final, cost £10 entry. A season ticket would've cost me £80 and, for £10 a year, you can become a part of the Supporters Trust with an ability to vote at important club meetings.
Hendon took a 1-0 lead into half-time, only for Hamlet to grab an equaliser early in the second half. Extra-time in the intense heat took its toll and a penalty shoot-out looked inevitable. The Hamlet won 4-3 on penalties, earning promotion to Step 2 (Conference South) and ending their terrible run of playoff defeats.
As for Hendon, a season of overachievement that has done wonders for the club as a whole was over. Improved attendances, attractive football and a new home are all the ingredients for a football club on the up. However, a few days after sobering up after the play-off final defeat, the FA announced its league allocations for next season with controversial results.
Hendon FC will now play in the Southern Premier League (South) next season, ending their 55-year stay in the Isthmian Premier. Any hopes of mounting a promotion challenge next season are up in smoke, as a season of new and different opposition emerges. Harrow Borough, Met Police and Staines Town also move across with Hendon in a league that features clubs like, Weymouth, Merthry Town, Poole Town, Dorchester Town, Swindon Supermaine and Taunton & Tiverton.
There's a 43% increase in travel distance in this proposed new league allocation for Hendon. It has already seen the resignation of the Met Police FC manager, who stated he cannot commit to the extra travelling needed.
From a Hendon perspective, there is a fear that we may struggle to keep the majority of playing staff from this season, as this campaign's success has attracted attention from clubs higher up, and with the extra travel costs, it will surely dampen the wage budgets for the new campaign. On the positive side, it provides some new opposition and challenges for the club, including potential early or end of season away trips to Weymouth or the West Country, although a Tuesday night fixture away to Merthyr in January seems inevitable!
Now I have the summer to contemplate purchasing a season ticket for the 2018/2019 season. Even if I can't commit to attending every game, I'm pretty sure I'll become a part of the regular Green Army. Non-League Football is the future. It’s football for the people.