Never was so much fun had in the name of a worthy cause. Here's how my Saturday afternoon was spent on Non-League Day.
Having ummed and erred for a few weeks trying to decide where to go for Non-League Day, I was more than happy I'd chosen Sutton United v Billericay Town as soon as I walked into the Borough Sports Ground on Gander Green Lane.
This place has everything you could want from a non-league ground. A club shop in a portacabin with a thick, lush hedge growing on top. Strange, curved terracing bending right the way behind the goal at the far end (Wikipedia says it was once used for 'racing' - not sure if they mean dogs, horses or humans). A giraffe for a mascot - well Sutton do play in yellow and brown! A boy with a rasping little vuvuzela that he blows for shock value every time an opposition player is about to shoot or cross . A quaint shack on the far side called "Rose's Tea Hut". Big-brand companies' sponsor boards (Tesco, Zurich, Securicor) standing side-by-side with ads for local timber merchants and skip-hire firms. The home team's manager (Paul Doswell), occasionally heading to the stand to watch spells of the action up there, but continuing to bawl instructions at his charges so that his voice booms around under the metal main stand roof. This is, as they say, 'proper football'.
The standard of football's terrific too. Sutton's front four of Bradley Woods-Garness, Richard Jolly, Craig Dundas and Fola Orilonishe have the lot - industry, guile, pace - it's most easy on the eye. While at the back, Jason Goodliffe remains as rock-like as he was in his AFC Wimbledon days. Billericay's Leon McKenzie scored 54 goals in 104 appearances for Peterborough, yet he doesn't stand out from a very decent overall standard here. One of the few who does look too good for this level, however, is ex-Watford and Burnley player Micah Hyde in the 'Ricay midfield. When he gets the ball he looks a class apart, even at 35.
Ten minutes in and Jolly almost gets a shot in on goal, but is charged down. The ball breaks lose and Woods-Garness shows excellent pace and bravery to get there fractionally before the keeper and nudge the ball home. It proved to be the only goal, as Sutton, urged on by their constantly vocal support, pressed and harried all over the pitch during what was a very enjoyable 90 minutes.
It's worth giving a better mention to these fans. They were such good value that I'd go and watch Sutton again any day just because it's a pleasure to take in a game with such lively and good-natured guys. At one point, Sutton won a free-kick and the referee, who'd be annoying the home fans for a spell, made a point of pacing out the 10 yards from the ball where the wall had to stand. "One! Two! Three! Four!" bellowed the fans each time he took a step. But they were only to get as far as eight. "Boooooooo!" Maybe it sounds crass to repeat, but it's very funny when you're part of it.
The attendance is read out over the loud speaker during the second half: 733. An increase of over 200 on the previous home games this season. Well done to the organisers of Non-League Day - it certainly had the desired effect at dozens of grounds around the country; even if certain media could have done a lot more to promote it (I'm looking at you, Auntie). My dad (Bournemouth fan) and brother (Villa fan) went to Moneyfields v Farnborough North End in the FA Vase (5-2, cracking game apparently). Moneyfields more than doubled their previous attendance, in another example of Non-League Day making a real difference. Already looking forward to the next one: 9 October, it says here. Can't wait.
All photos linked to in this piece were taken by Paul Loughlan, a talented snapper who uploads pictures from loads of Sutton games to his Flickr page - what a treat