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Guest Writer - Healing Hands(worth): How non-league saved me and my love for the game in 2020.

4th November 2020 Handsworth FC vs AFC Mansfield

A real “ooo those winter nights are setting in” evening at Olivers Mount for what would be the last football I could legally attend for the minimum of a month. What could have usually been a farce of a journey with rush hour, shoppers and arena event traffic, was a very quick and easy drive up Derek Dooley way onto the Parkway from Hillsborough (1 tiny benefit of Covid).

Driving up the narrow residential street towards the ground, you wouldn’t envisage the vastness of the venue. And what a cracking one it is too!

I parked up and followed the crowds towards the entrance, a very professional and glossy looking programme behind the payment hut was snatched before my very eyes as a gentleman in a Mansfield Town jacket bought the last one. That would be the only disappointment of the night.

I was greeted by a gentleman pitchside who couldn’t have been more welcoming, explaining the route to refreshments, ground layout and engaging on the talk of the night, the breaking news that Sheffield Wednesday had won back 6 points on their EFL case appeal. This was naturally a big talking point throughout those in attendance, the Wednesday fans feeling positive (it’s been a while) and somewhat staggered, the rest wondering how “those lucky bar stewards” had managed that.

I went and set up shop in the far left hand corner (Pitch C if you're renting for 5 a side), and the rail height for a chubby lad with bad posture was simply…*kisses fingers like an overenthusiastic chef*. Olivers Mount allows for fans to stand on all 4 sides of the pitch, which in the current climate allows for plenty of personal space, even with a near capacity crowd in.

The match itself was a laboured but end to end affair, Mansfield taking the lead midway through the 1st half, with Handsworth slowly but surely working their way back into it, in no small part to the ‘verbal encouragement’ coming from the dugout (the coaching team were certainly not in lockdown mode!).

Half time came and I decided to have a meander around the rest of the ground. Several officials from other NCEL teams and the league itself were spotted, adding to the ‘last one for a while’ feel. I popped over to the clubhouse, which is a trek which makes you earn your pie, but was more interested in savouring the stinging

warmth of the toilet block than any of the pies or drinks on offer (plus as previously stated, I’m a big lad and had already eaten my tea). The said Mansfield Town fan (or programme thief as I know him) spotted the Owl on my winter coat, and engaged me in further EFL chat, with a bit of Covid chat thrown in for good measure (my eyes never leaving the glistening Amber booklet sticking out of his coat pocket). A walk back to pitchside (downhill this time), I took up a place opposite to the first half, around more of the regular patrons, but with plenty of space to not feel cramped.

Handsworth equalised in spectacular fashion early doors, before Manfield crept in what would prove to be the winner soon after, despite the hard work and ample chances created by both sides. The highlight of the second half (Handsworth’s goal aside) was the announcers unabashed confusion as to whom was being substituted off/on for Mansfield, “I haven’t got a clue who’s going off, but he’s walking very slowly towards the dugout” was roughly how he put it.

The game came to a close with both teams paying genuine mutual respects to each other, before Dame Vera Lynne rattled the Tannoys with ‘We’ll Meet Again’. It was hard not to feel a touch emotional. Like many, this summer, a combination of anxiety, depression with an exacerbation of Coronavirus, working from home, home schooling, knocked me for 6. Alongside this, in a case of definite oversharing, my Mum was hospitalised with an incredibly rare syndrome for around 7 weeks where I had genuinely prepared myself to lose her (thank christ she is now on the mend) and after that my Dad suffered a massive heart attack (again, thankfully he’s now on the mend). I was a shell of myself for a good few months. I count my blessings that I have a beautiful wife and kids, a wonderfully supportive employer, and a great set of mates to help me through this time.

One of the other main things that helped me get my groove back was travelling with said mates to non league football, starting back in the summer with what can only be described as a boozy Saturday session at Sandygate. I shamefully have attended almost no non league football during my 29 years, with the exception of pinching corner flags at matches my Dad refereed at a very young age. I like many others have carved a niche of spending all of my money football wise following Sheffield Wednesday up and down the country for many a year, and this is by no mean a declaration of falling out of love with them (no matter how hard they have tested me for some 20 years) but non league brings it back down to a level where you don’t just feel like a number, feel like a customer to be milked for every penny, feel so detached.

You might be reading this thinking ‘well you're bound to say that supporting them’ and there may be a part of that which is true, but speaking to good friends who are Blades, they are feeling similar despite coming off the back of their best season in forever. Something slightly off about waiting to be told by a scoreboard if the goal you scored has been chalked off due to an armpit, or shirt pull 20 seconds beforehand, something off about being happily relegated to TV viewer of the Premier League show (hey! It’s got simulated sounds guys, for just £14.95).

Non league has genuine caring, welcoming people, who are happy for you to be there, who work their socks off

to make sure it goes off without a hitch, you can stand next to fans from all over the country without SAG having a panic attack. It's real, it’s life affirming that the game isn’t just a revolting money pit. Also you can get a ticket, a few pints and watch a bloody entertaining game, with plenty of change left over! (always a benefit not having to explain to your other half why that trip to Meadowhall now has to wait till payday because you fancied a spoons when you got off the train at Birmingham).

It’s given me something to genuinely look forward to, something I can do with my friends, my son, something that isn’t refreshing ifollow (when it works) and trying in vain to cast the empty stadium to my TV.

Here’s to the safe return of all non league football, and freezing evenings spent with strangers in Handsworth!

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