The man behind football’s Non-League Day: from Facebook post to worldwide celebration  

“Non-League football is the bedrock of the national game.” says James Doe, the founder of Non-League Day, which provides clubs outside of the league pyramid a chance to boost their attendances and make some much-needed cash.  

Non-League Day is an annual event which encourages fans to support non-league football during the international break and bump up the crowds. This year’s takes place this Saturday (23rd March).  

Doe said: “One of the reasons I keep it going is it gives clubs a chance to generate their own money rather than having to rely on handouts. Clubs need to be self-sustaining if possible.” 

Some local sides are offering fans extra incentives to come along. FC United are giving away 1,000 free tickets for M40 and M69 households and tickets for Stalybridge are 30% off.  

It was back in 2010 when the germ of the idea was formed, when Doe visited Tavistock A.F.C. in Devon for a pre-season friendly with QPR. He says the buzz and excitement provided the catalyst for a movement that has grown monumentally in stature since its inception.  

“It was obvious how big the game was to the local community. There were adverts on buses, on signs and roundabouts. The game was packed out and it was obvious how important it was going to be for the finances of the team for the rest of the season.” 

That taste of non-league football prompted Doe to go back to his boyhood club Southern League Harrow and he was surprised at what he saw.  

“They were raising funds for floodlight bulbs which at the time I was quite struck by because I thought that would be quite a routine cost for a club playing in the seventh tier, but it obviously wasn’t. I looked around and I could see similar stories in similar leagues, and I had this eureka moment that we need to put on an event to raise a bit of interest for the non-league game.” 

Doe set up a Facebook event, originally called ‘Non-League Football Day’, which he sent to a few friends who he encouraged to join him to watch Harrow, but the idea struck a chord with more people than Doe imagined. 

“It got picked up by the Non-League Show on BBC Radio London. It went viral and six weeks later I had a national event on my hands.” 

“It’s far outstripped whatever I thought would ever happen. It was just a Facebook event among friends. I didn’t expect it to get anywhere really.”   

Now it’s become an annual institution backed by Premier League and Football League clubs, MPs, celebrities, media organisations and charities. The hashtag #NonLeagueDay is often the top Twitter trend on the day, and this year sees them partnering with Prostate Cancer UK, South-Western Railway and the Premier League. 

With expensive ticket prices pricing people out in the upper tiers of the game, Doe believes that the accessibility and pricing is part of the reason that Non-League Day has been such a success.  

“You get close to the action; you can speak to the players easily. When I was going regularly to watch Harrow I’d go on the team bus to away games. You can walk in and stand and drink where you like.”  

It’s not just fans that have turned up in abundance. Non-league clubs have embraced the tradition and, according to Doe, have grown their fanbases as a result.  

“It is a platform to open your club to the community and if you really exploit it then you can grow your club massively. Clubs like Dulwich Hamlet went from a crowd of 500 fans to about 3000, and it’s now that level every week.”   

Last year Altrincham received a bumper crowd of 3,041, nearly a thousand people more than that season’s average attendance, while Curzon Ashton nearly doubled their regular attendance to a gate of 508 against Chorley last year. 

“In year one the Non-League Paper said the average crowd was up by about 12% on the day. I did my own number crunching last year and attendances were up by about 40,000 people. The National League alone gets 40,000 on any given Saturday, so it’s like a whole extra National League crowd turning up.” 

It’s not just UK fans that have embraced the annual tradition either. At the end of 2022, La Liga team Athletic Bilbao reached out to Doe about running a similar event in the Basque country.  

“They took us to the training ground and club headquarters. We went to watch their derby with Osasuna, sat in the president’s box, went to the museum. We were treated like new signings we just didn’t do a medical!”  

“They did it in the September international break and I went over. It was the total VIP experience. They took me to several games. I’d be meeting mayors, president of the Basque FA, I helped carry the Copa Del Rey onto the pitch with club legends. It was bonkers!” 

This Saturday’s event will see events taking place in France and Germany. It’s a stark contrast from its inception as a small “social media experiment” among mates.  

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