My beloved Sutton United were promoted to the Football League in May 2021, ending our 123-year history in non-league football. I still follow U’s every week, of course, but will always remain a non-league football fan as well. Stefan Appleby’s debut book does an excellent job of capturing all the reasons why.
My own debut book, Six Added Minutes, tells the story of watching Sutton in our non-league years. However, whilst the team I supported were massively overachieving, Appleby’s Gresley Rovers were largely unremarkable in the ten-year spell he documents in his book. The Derbyshire side bounce around between the eighth and ninth tiers, leaving Appleby to do all the legwork in making an interesting story out of it. This he does superbly, largely through humour around the matchday experience. What makes Appleby’s commitment to Gresley even more impressive is that he moved away from the village in 1998 and spent the entirety of the ten years his book covers living in London – over 100 miles away. Despite this, and the responsibilities that come with adulthood, Appleby still regularly makes time to make the journey to watch the team play. Sometimes he manages to convince friends along too, such as the time seven friends accompanied him to Dawlish for an FA Vase tie that was abandoned due to torrential rainfall in extra time. We all wish we had friends like Stefan’s! Other times he does the journey alone, nicely elocuting the joys of both travelling and watching football solo.
For the most part, the book is light-hearted and contains several stories of drunken antics at away matches. Appleby does a good job of keeping the reader emotionally invested in his side, with the experience of watching the 90 minutes of football given far more prominence than events on the pitch themselves. This is an important characteristic of being a football fan for me. It is often (only half-jokingly!) said that the worst hour and a half of an away day with your side is the game itself. There are times supporting any team when you have to take matters into your own hands to make sure you are enjoying it, which Appleby does in no small part with pub crawls and blue WKD at half-time. If you want to hear stories of doing shots of ‘squashed frogs’ with a stag do group in Goole, then this book is for you.
It isn’t just tales of heavy drinking in random northern towns, though. Appleby also does a fine job of intertwining his personal life with football, meaning the reader feels as if they know him by the end of the book. Though the time period covered is whilst the author is in his 30s, it feels almost like a coming of age as Appleby goes through several big life changes whilst keeping his love for his football team as the one constant in his life. He opens up on tragedy as well as joy – there is one particularly sad moment which rather spoilt my laughter at Appleby’s description of my local pub before he heard the worst possible news in it. When you hear Appleby’s good news later on you feel delighted for him despite only knowing him through the 270 pages of his book – a sure sign of an excellent piece of writing.
In summary, What I Talk About When I Talk About Non-League Football details the unique and beautiful nature of both football in the lower leagues and the experience of watching it. It is a must-read for football fans of any description, but particularly those who support sides below English football’s top four divisions.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.