Football

A day in the life of a non-league footballer

Non-league football continues to be overshadowed. (©GettyImages)
Non-league football continues to be overshadowed. (©GettyImages).

Mr Reliable himself, the highly-experienced goalkeeper Andy Little looks back on a fantastic season and career as a non-league footballer.

He talks about his future plans both inside and outside of the game, and reveals how some situations can become far bigger than football.

Andy, 37, describes himself as the true non-league player. Growing up he, like so many young boys, found a love for football – watching Sheffield Wednesday for the first time at just three and adopting them as his favoured club.

At 10 years old, Andy began playing in the junior leagues, but it was not until much later that his goalkeeping talents were discovered: “A manager of a local team came to one of our PE lessons looking for players, no one used to want to go in goal in our team so we took it in turns. 

"The guy reckoned I made a flying fingertip save to stop the opposition’s only shot and from then on they stuck me in goal.”   

Despite his apparent prowess as a goalkeeper, it took some time to deter Andy from a career as an outfield player: “I actually played in midfield for a South Yorkshire County side at Under 19’s level, but that was almost twenty years ago now, and these days the boys would all hammer me and tell me I’m nowhere near good enough!”

During his time at Roehampton University, where he gained a degree in Sports Science, Andy joined Croydon FC (then of Ryman Division 2). While there he was involved in trials for several top clubs, including games for a West Ham Reserve side that also featured Manchester United star and former England captain Rio Ferdinand.

Andy explained why a move to the ‘big time’ never emerged for him: “When I was about 19 or 20 I think a couple of pro clubs made Croydon an offer, but I was on contract and the clubs didn’t offer what Croydon wanted. 

"It was disappointing from my point of view, but that’s life, and I’m lucky to have had a good career as a non-league player.”

A career highlight was his time at AFC Wimbledon: “It was fantastic to have the opportunity to play for what is effectively a league club, with such a huge following. 

"My first friendly game for them after I signed was against FC United of Manchester in the Supporters Direct Trust Cup – you basically had a load of Manchester United fans behind one goal and lots of Wimbledon fans behind the other. 

"There were about 3,500 people there in total, Sky Sports were also there, filming it and making a highlights package, I remember getting home that night, seeing it on the telly and thinking what a good move I’d made.” 

He adds that winning the league with current club Woking this season would definitely be up there on his list of favourite achievements. The Cards currently lead the Blue Square South by eight points with five games remaining.

Despite finding himself primarily on the bench this year, many Woking fans will appreciate the work Andy has put in with fellow Woking goalkeeper’s Aaron Howe and Matt Pegler. 

Andy joked that his tips in training might be serving Aaron too well, considering that he is currently being kept out of the team as a result of Howe’s superb season. The current number one has conceded only 25 goals in 26 league games, and kept eight clean-sheets.

In spite of a slightly frustrating season personally, Andy was full of praise for the club’s current number one: “I was happy with my form at the start of the season, I missed a couple of weeks to be with my wife while she gave birth, and fair play to Aaron he came in and did really well. 

"It was put to us at the start of the season that if one of us got in and did well then they were going to be the permanent goalkeeper for a while.

"I’ve had a couple of games here and there since then and I’ve been happy with my contribution. 

"It’s a friendly rivalry and it can only be a healthy thing for a club to have some strong competition for the goalkeeping role – Aaron has got in and he’s been fantastic. I’m there if I’m needed and I’ll always do my best if I get the chance.”

Encouragingly for the club at least, things looks set to stay the same for the time being: “People make a big deal out of a club having two keepers, when obviously only one of them can play, but we work well together and I’m happy where I am.

"I want to be involved in a successful club and I’m at an age where I’m not looking to move just to play games.”

Never a regular mover, Andy became settled at several ‘big-name’ non-league clubs earlier in his career, including Crawley, where he won promotion to the Conference National in 2000, and the aforementioned AFC Wimbledon, who both now reside in the football league. 

Renowned for his reliability and commanding presence between the sticks, Andy has become a firm fan-favourite for many of his former sides, and indeed with his current club Woking, who he joined in September 2010 – making 45 appearances in the 10-11 season.

A five-year spell at Wimbledon, including a couple of promotion seasons, was cruelly cut short by injury. Damage to his cruciate ligament and a fracture in his hand kept Andy out of action for close to 18 months.

But, along with always looking out for their results, he still has connections with the club: “I still know a couple of the players and I do some coaching there as well, having originally taken on a similar role while I was recovering from injury. 

"It seems to have snowballed from there, I’ve done my coaching badges and I managed one of their junior teams for a couple of years, which I’ve now given up to concentrate on the goalkeepers. 

"It’s something I really enjoy, and being in the twilight years of my playing career I certainly hope to get more involved with that side of things in the future.”

February 2010 saw Andy leave Wimbledon as a player to join ambitious minnows Croydon Athletic, who won the Isthmian Division One South that season to earn promotion to the Isthmian Premier (the seventh tier of English football). 

His eight-month spell with the Rams was to prove that some things are bigger than football, Croydon becoming the first football club in history to be ousted from existence by Pakistan no-balls in a Test match.

Club owner Mazhar Majeed was unmasked as an alleged fixer in the Pakistan spot-betting scandal which rocked Test cricket two years ago. While the fall-out from the actions of three cricketers on the pitch has been well documented while the loss of an entire football club went all but unnoticed. 

Majeed was suspected of ‘rinsing’ millions through the club, whose final published accounts had shown they were £382,000 in the red. Jealous rivals claimed Croydon’s promotion at the end of the 2009-10 season has been financed by the wages of sin.

Croydon went down fighting in their final game – especially in the 23-man brawl which saw striker Gary Noel, who had been substituted ten minutes earlier, dash 70 yards from the bench to join in. 

An emotional and diehard set of 117 supporters were reduced to tears at the final whistle, having maintained an admirable humour throughout the day, crying “no-ball!” each time the visiting Concord goalkeeper launched a goal-kick.

Manager Tim O’Shea, a former Tottenham Hotspur and Gillingham defender, had told players an hour before kick-off the end was nigh and, upon the conclusion of their 3-1 defeat, tendered his resignation. 

Assistant manager Neil Smith, and the entire first-team squad, soon followed suit – having not been paid for three weeks – the club’s accounts frozen and their cheques having bounced.

Andy reminisced sadly about how these events unfolded: “It was a bizarre time, a sad time because we had a really strong, together group of lads down there. 

"As players we didn’t really know much about it, we’d played Saturday and drawn 0-0 at home to Billericay, then I woke up Sunday morning with my phone going mad telling me to turn Sky Sports News on, and I find the owners face splashed across the News of the World. 

"The month after was very difficult, there were some young players there who relied upon the wages they got for playing, and despite a couple of potential buyers looking to save the club it never came off. 

"The club chairman (David Le Cluse) actually committed suicide, and it all started from the owner (Majeed) using the club for other means. 

"From the wider aspect of football it just shows you what can happen if a club is miss-managed: Croydon Athletic has gone bust, and unfortunately they no longer exist.”

With 2012 having already been a year littered with football clubs struggling to avoid a similar fate, high-profile examples such as Rangers and Portsmouth stand-out, but it brings into question how many non-league clubs can survive, especially with low crowds, poor quality squads, small budgets and barely any press attention or recognition. 

Having experienced elements of this scenario in his time at Croydon, Andy revealed his thoughts on the current financial state of the beautiful game:

“I think the FA has to take a leading role, in recent year’s football clubs have become the fashionable thing for people with money to play with, and they need to be aware of that. 

"Owners currently have to pass a ‘fit and proper persons test’, and our owner at Croydon passed, which says to me that those tests aren’t stringent enough. 

"I know (Michel) Platini and Uefa are looking at budget caps so maybe that’s along the right lines, but no one wants to see a club go bust.”

Even with such problems so often revolving around them, there is something magical about non-league football in England, something which no other country can match. 

Examples lie in the famed FA Cup runs and ‘giant-killings’ provided by the likes of Hereford United, Sutton United, Havant & Waterlooville and, just last season, Crawley Town, who gave the mighty Manchester United an almighty scare at Old Trafford.

Non-League football also has an uncanny knack for producing, often out of nothing, a star player destined for bigger things. With more and more top league academies inundated with foreign stars, the pressure for producing the next crop of England internationals might well fall to a different source.

After considering the likes of Stuart Pearce, who appeared 78 times for England between 1987 and 1999, having started his career with non-league Wealdstone, and Chris Smalling, who as recently as 2008 was playing for Maidstone United, Andy expressed his belief that the non-league still has a role to play in football. 

He said: “If clubs aren’t lazy and go and have a look at players in the lower leagues, they’ll find those that are capable of progressing. 

"A lot of professional clubs just get in as bigger turnover of youngsters as they can and hope they pick up a couple of gems, rather than working with and improving what they’ve got. If a club is looking abroad for talent it doesn’t say much to me about their coaching structure.”

In order to support themselves financially, many non-league players are also part-time players. Away from football, Andy runs a corporate gym for Nuffield Health, which contracts well-being services at corporate locations. 

Andy can currently be found at Pfizer in Tadworth, where he successfully sets his shifts around his football commitments. It’s something he has been doing for many years now, as it allows him time for his coaching, as well as playing commitments, and keeps him fit.

Similar stories from can be found across the country amongst numerous non-league players. Perhaps it’s time their hard work gained some long overdue recognition. The future of English football might just depend on it. 

 

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