The clicking of turnstiles, the patter of studs on concrete and the smell of Deep Freeze wafting out of the changing rooms.
There’s nothing like non-League football and with the professional game still locked away behind closed doors, it’s the place to be for the new season.
Of course, the non-League scene has had to adapt too – expect track and trace systems, social distancing in the clubhouse bar and crowd limits – but if that means fans and football can reunite after almost six months apart then it’s a sacrifice many will happily accept.
Football is nothing without fans – if you asked the likes of Joe Lolley or Lewis Grabban whether they’d prefer to play in a lifeless City Ground or before 100 passionate fans at the ground of local non-league side Radford FC, tucked away down a side street in Hyson Green and nestled around terrace housing, the response may be interesting.
That was the setting for my long-awaited reunion with the sport that’s been sorely missed in my life during lockdown. Never again will I take for granted watching football in pouring rain and gale-force winds.
The reunion was made even more special by the match in question – Radford’s first match back was in the oldest football competition in the world. The FA Cup. Some return. The last time the FA Cup started as late as September 1 was at the start of the 1945-46 season, no need to mention what had caused delays prior to that year’s competition.
It is just 30 days since the final of last year’s competition was contested at Wembley Stadium, between Arsenal and Chelsea, this is the shortest gap ever in the history of the Cup. I know it sounds crazy to say but, on paper, for your club to hypothetically be able to play Manchester United or Liverpool is something that can’t be underestimated for the average supporter.
Just the eight matches to get through first, of course.
However, who needs the footballing giants when you can have two sides battle it out under the lights on a Tuesday night for a trip to play nearby Ilkeston Town in the next round – that’s what I call entertainment.
The floodlights illuminated the pitch and housing estate that encompasses part of Radford’s unassuming and honest ground. Yet, there was nothing unassuming about the quality of the match. A battle from start to finish as Radford and their higher-tier opponents from Leicestershire, Shepshed Dynamo, played out a breathtaking draw.
You could understandably think that my expectations have been lowered by football’s absence, but I can assure you they were not. A first-half goal for each side created an enticing affair that drained supporters as much as it did players.
By the closing stages, players were cramping, fans were rattling advertising hoardings to raise the atmosphere and managers were barking at a referee battling to keep control of this intense tie.
The phrase, “magic of the cup” gets bashed around an awful lot these days, especially by broadcasters keen to liven up a tie between Liverpool under 23s and Shrewsbury Town, but I can assure you there’s no hyperbole here – okay, well only through my own excitement.
No replays in this year’s FA Cup meant the final whistle signalled a penalty shootout to decide who would continue their FA Cup journey. The 200 supporters in the ground swarmed like flies around the goal closest to the clubhouse.
An inspired performance by the Shepshed keeper and some fortune from the goalpost denied Radford an FA Cup upset. There were muted celebrations from the opposition; probably all too aware of their lucky escape.
I felt as if Radford had just lost in the final of the FA Cup let alone in the extra preliminary round as the crowd headed for the exit.
But then, at that moment, I took a step back and realised what I’d just witnessed. A football match fought to the bitter end by two sides desperate to win; spurred on by passionate and die-hard supporters. Ecstasy for one team, agony for the other.
The team I was supporting may have lost on the pitch but in reality, the fact that there I was amongst a packed crowd watching competitive football in the flesh again tells me that we’ve all won.
Football has returned, no fake crowd noises, no empty stadiums, just the beautiful game at its very best.
By Pete Trifunovic