On a cold Tuesday night, as the wind whipped in from the North Sea, I joined 220 hardy souls to watch a game of football. Less than a mile away from the Sizewell nuclear plant on the Suffolk coast but light years away from the lurid lights of the Premiership, Leiston FC were playing Ilkeston Town in the Pitching In Southern League – Premier Division Central. As the old joke goes, the attendance was so small it would have been easier to name the crowd changes than the team changes.
Welcome to non-league football – in this case the seventh tier of the game’s pyramid system of promotion and relegation. A win for Leiston on this night would see them go second in the division – the highest position they have been since the formation of the club in 1880, according to one local who looked old enough to have seen them when they started. That makes this tiny club two years older than Spurs, around a decade older than Liverpool and more than a century older than Chelsea if, like the majority of their supporters, you only count the years following Roman Abramovich’s purchase of the club.
The stadium capacity is given as 2,250 including 250 seats, most of which were not taken up by supporters who preferred to stand around the metal fence that surrounds the pitch at the optimistically named Victory Road ground. I left home half an hour before kick-off and was in the ground ten minutes before the match started. Ilkeston had brought a coachload down and they were a noisy bunch. But then 221 supporters are never going to be deafening and every individual shout could be heard easily – so much so that when one home fan near the halfway line berated the referee for not sending off a Town player, you could quite easily hear what an Ilkeston supporter from the far end of the ground thought of the intervention.