Oxford City vs Rochdale at Court Place Farm doesn’t have quite the same ring as Chelsea vs Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, but last Saturday’s match was important all the same.
‘The Hoops’, Oxford’s oldest football club, founded in 1882 when Gladstone was prime minister and Old Etonians won the FA Cup, were playing their first ever home game in the fifth tier of English football. Rochdale, whose 102-year membership of the Football League ended in May, were playing their first away game in the Vanarama National League. Seven hundred and eighty-one of us, including a spirited contingent from Lancashire, turned up to see the clash of the two sides and ‘The Dale’ claim a 1-0 victory with a 71st-minute goal. It was a far cry from the heavyweight battle at the Bridge at the weekend, but it was wonderful.
Non-League football has a buzz all of its own which for me, for the most part, beats the big-time Premier League games.
While it’s too much of a stretch to say ‘This is football as it used to be’, non-League matches still have the old ‘people’s game’ feel to them. Something the high-cost Premiership encounters between teams of millionaires lost years ago.
At Oxford City – where it’s £18 at the turnstiles with £13 concessions and £6 for students – you can move easily round the ground. You can get close to the players and the action. In fact you can stand right behind the goal if you want to. Conversations between fellow supporters start up spontaneously. On Saturday I bumped into an old friend who told me he had been to more than 130 grounds and was looking forward to a first-time trip to the Shay, home of FC Halifax Town, next week.