Non-League Day could not have come at a better time this season.
If England’s soulless 0-0 with Croatia in the UEFA Nations League reminded us of the importance of fans, a sell-out crowd for Leyton Orient’s National League fixture with Hartlepool reinforced the point ten-fold.
With tickets reduced to £5, just under seven thousand fans descended upon east London to witness what many would call ‘real football’.
Buoyed by unseasonably good weather, doughnuts, and free pre-match lagers courtesy of sponsors Dream Team (yes, us), the crowd were in fine voice from the off.
The hosts’ No9 Macauley Bonne has already reached double figures for goals this season.
His prolific form has propelled Orient to third in the table.
Opponents Hartlepoole, or ‘Jeff Stelling’s mob’ as the fan next to me called them, started the day in sixth.
These were two of the league’s better teams.
Truth be told however, it was a poor first half.
36-year-old Jobi McAnuff, formerly of Reading, was a class act in the middle of the park.
Other than him, no player was able to keep possession for very long.
Perhaps the occasion got to a few of the players?
However, a lack of quality did not detract from the spectacle.
For regular viewers of the Premier League such as myself, this was a glimpse of the beautiful game in its purest form.
Some rolled their eyes at the loose touches and wayward passes, but most embraced the game for what it was – a proper contest free from the blemishes of modern football.
No egos, no diving, just three points on the line.
The cynics in the crowd had something of an open goal in terms of symbolism.
A dead pigeon, tangled in a wire in such a way it looked as if it had been hanged, dangled from the East Stand’s rafters.
Despite what some would have you think, this rather morbid sight was in no way a reflection of the game itself.
The Breyer Group Stadium (Brisbane Road to most) is a ground with genuine character.
Not long after the restart, a woman emerged from a third-floor balcony of one of the apartments located in the south-east corner of the ground.
She took a couple of seconds to consider the game before hanging out her washing to dry.
You would never get such a charming domesticity at a Premier League ground.
Once I accepted the game was likely to be the worst I’d watch all season in terms of quality, I was able to embrace the beautiful simplicity of it all.
Just as the behind-closed-doors nature of England’s trip to Croatia made the game almost unwatchable, a packed crowd at Orient made the contest very watchable indeed.
Joe Widdowson was sent off for a proper Non-League lunge just before the hour mark.
This gave the game an extra edge.
The hosts were not hampered by their one-man disadvantage as the ten men of Orient created several good chances.
>Hartlepoole’s Liam Noble became the pantomime villain.
His baiting of the home crowd meant he was roundly booed whenever he touched the ball in the last half hour.
It was easy enough to tell when he was in possession – Noble is currently sporting a haircut similar to Brazilian Ronaldo’s at the 2002 World Cup.
The game ended 0-0 – but it was a good one.
And, if the purpose of Non-League Day is to convert a few non-believers, then it certainly worked on me.
The exemplary technique and high-stakes of top-flight football make it thrilling.
But so much about what we love about football can be found at endearing grounds all over the country for a fraction of the price.
Give a Non-League a chance, you won’t regret it.
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- Watch part two of Dream Team’s exclusive documentary series on Leyton Orient