Brian Viner: Skills, thrills and value for money - yes there is life outside the Premiership

Click to follow
The Independent Football

A few weeks ago, reflecting on the expertise of sundry former footballers who now operate as broadcasters, I ventured the analogy that Andy Townsend of ITV and Talksport radio is Premier League material, whereas his Talksport colleague Rodney Marsh is comparable more with the lower reaches of the Unibond League. This prompted a furious e-mail, not from Rodney Marsh or even a close relative of his, but from a reader outraged by my lack of respect towards the Unibond League.

Had I ever seen a match in the Unibond League, he thundered. If I had, then I would know that it harbours footballers of no little skill and great dedication, playing for the love of the game rather than Rolex watches, Armani suits and BMW roadsters. If anyone should be disparaged for not giving value for money it should be the richly rewarded footballers of the Premier League, he implied, not the honest artisans of the Unibond.

My correspondent was perhaps being a mite over-sensitive, but I promised that I would never again take the Unibond name in vain. I also resolved to take myself off to see some non-League football, which last Saturday I finally did, albeit a top-of-the-table meeting between two teams with Football League aspirations, the second-placed side in the Nationwide Conference, Hereford United, and the runaway leaders, Accrington Stanley.

It is getting on for four years since we moved to Herefordshire and I drive past the Edgar Street stadium at least six times a week, but this, to my shame, was my first visit. I took my two sons, each of whom invited a friend. That was my first pleasurable discovery, that five of us could get through the pleasingly ramshackle turnstiles for less than the cost of a single ticket at many Premiership grounds.

Of course, if the subsequent match had turned out to offer less than a fifth of the entertainment value of a Premiership match, then my outlay would have constituted false economy. But it was a thriller; in front of a whopping crowd of 4,479, Edgar Street's biggest for two years, Accrington went 2-0 up and Hereford stormed back. At the end where Ronnie Radford once booked his place among the immortals, Nicky Nicolau scored a cracking injury-time equaliser that was comfortably the equal of most of the goals scored on what was said to be the Premiership's most illustrious day in terms of spectacular strikes. Would that the Match of the Day cameras had been there.

It seems a shame that Nicolau's goal was recorded only on someone's mobile phone. Come to think of it, why shouldn't the BBC's Saturday night package include brief highlights of perhaps a couple of meaningful matches from the Coca-Cola Championship and one non-League match? I'm sure a deal could be struck, and it would represent a weekly reminder that there is a great deal more to English football than the Premiership. After all, far more people watch the 72 lower-league clubs every weekend than watch the élite 20: last season, the aggregate Premiership attendance was 12.8 million; for the rest of the League it was 16.2 million, to which the Conference added a further 814,243. That's a lot of people being alienated every Saturday by television, and throughout the rest of the week, dare I say it, by the national press.

If broadcasters and national newspaper journalists alike spent a little less time prostrating themselves before the Premiership - and I plead guilty myself - they might notice that there is a lot of other exciting stuff out there.

Traditionally, of course, it's the FA Cup that gives the media a chance to illuminate the more obscure reaches of football, and the last eight usually contains at least one team from outside the sacred collective, but, dispiritingly, this season's quarter-finalists are all Premiership clubs.

Dispiritingly, too, their managers seem to have forgotten that at the start of the season they approved the Football Association's decision to scrap the usual quarter-final weekend so that the season could be shortened by a week, giving Sven Goran Eriksson more time to mastermind his ferocious assault on the World Cup.

They are now bleating like crutched ewes (my football analogies might not be up to much, but I haven't lived for four years in Herefordshire without discovering some reliable ones involving sheep) about the admittedly strange arrangement whereby all four matches will be played on successive nights from Monday to Thursday, giving poor Alan Pardew's West Ham, for example, scarcely 48 hours between this afternoon's fixture against Portsmouth and Monday's quarter-final against Manchester City.

I can see that it's not ideal - not least for those who hope to find something other than football on the television this week - and one hopes the FA, who paradoxically seem less fond of the FA Cup than the rest of us, will not turn a makeshift arrangement into a permanent fixture. But by the same token, it would be nice to see the Premiership managers liking it and lumping it a bit more. Down in the Conference they put up with much worse. Not to mention the marvellous Unibond.

Who I Like This Week...

The redoubtable Alastair Campbell doesn't need me climbing aboard his bandwagon, but I couldn't help noticing that he wrote a letter to The Guardian this week in which he all but called for Jeff Stelling, the presenter of Sky's Soccer Saturday, to be canonised. Apparently, Campbell was asked a whimsical question before the last general election in 2005: if the New Labour campaign were a person, who would he like it to be? He said "Jeff Stelling", to the consternation of those who didn't know Soccer Saturday from a row of onions. For what it's worth, I'm with him all the way. Stelling (below) is a genius. And a cheerful genius, which makes him an even rarer animal. Soccer Saturday has to be the most difficult programme of all to present, but he makes it look a doddle. I'd canonise him, give him a peerage, and make him Rear of the Year.

...And Who I Don't

Racist football fans, not the most controversial of targets for anybody's contempt, but surely the most deserving. And at long last, Sepp Blatter has declared war on them, the Fifa president deciding that domestic teams whose fans habitually abuse black players will initially have points deducted and might ultimately be relegated, with the punishment for international teams extending to a possible two-year ban. All of which should be applauded - and it's not often anyone says that of a Blatter initiative - but is there not a chance that a hard core of Roma fans, say, might spew their racial abuse masquerading as Lazio fans? Just a thought.